No. 5 Tennessee led wire-to-wire Saturday against No. 10 Kentucky in a road 103-92 win. The Vols have won four games inside Rupp Arena since Rick Barnes took over as coach during the 2015-16 season, which matches the amount (4-35) the school won the 39 years prior.
Tennessee (16-5, 6-2 SEC) responded days after a midweek loss to South Carolina at home on Tuesday to pick up its fourth Quad 1 victory of the season. The Vols remain 1.5 games back of No. 24 Alabama for first place in the conference after the Crimson Tide blew out Mississippi State at home earlier in the day.
After recording at least 25 points in his last six conference games, Tennessee star Dalton Knecht had his streak snapped. Knecht finished with 16 points but the star of the show turned out to be another Tennessee guard — Zakai Zeigler. The 5-foot-9 guard finished with his second double-double of the season with 26 points, 13 assists and three steals.
All five Tennessee starters scored in double-figures.
Kentucky (15-6, 5-4) dropped its third game in its last four contests after starting SEC play 2-0. The Wildcats also dropped a midweek game days before their highly anticipated top-10 showdown against Florida at home
The Wildcats were playing without star freshman D.J. Wagner, who is dealing with an ankle injury. Fellow freshman guard Rob Dillingham finished with a career-high 35 points.
Vols show they have more than Knecht
There are many reasons why Tennessee is getting legitimate Final Four buzz. One of them is Knecht , a star transfer who is playing like one of the best players in the country and would win SEC Player of the Year if the season ended today.
Knecht wasn’t the (sole) reason why Tennessee won.
A portion of the credit has to go to the other starters in the Tennessee lineup, specifically Zeigler. The shortest player on the court delivered the best performance of his career after a rough stretch of games which included him finishing with two points and three assists in 32 minutes days prior to South Carolina. But it wasn’t just Zeigler who showed up. Jonas Aidoo finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. Josiah-Jordan James matched Zeigler’s scoring effort with 26 points and Santiago Vescovi connected on 3-of-4 attempts from beyond the arc.
If Tennessee wants to make a run to the Final Four, it’s going to start with Knecht. But, Saturday showed they can win a game with multiple players contributing at a high level.
Kentucky’s lack of defense is a problem
Kentucky, like Tennessee, certainly feel like they can make a run to the Final Four next month. The Wildcats have the personnel and the talent to get there, but the defense could be why they ultimately fall short.
The Wildcats ranked No. 295 out of 362 Division l teams in points (77.2) allowed coming into the weekend. Kentucky gave up 103 against Tennessee, which won’t help them move up. This was the sixth time (out of nine SEC games) that the Wildcats allowed at least 85+ points.
That’s going to be a problem in March.
The positive takeaway for Kentucky is they have yet to play a game at full strength. Wagner being out of the starting lineup because of injury didn’t help the cause, but Dillingham’s performance was special. Some of Kentucky’s elimination games next month may just come down to its electrifying offense being just slightly better than the bad defense.
Tennessee improves stock
After falling to South Carolina earlier this week, Tennessee’s stock took a hit. In CBS Sports’ latest Bracketology by Jerry Palm, Tennessee stayed on the No. 2 line behind Marquette and Kansas. With Houston falling to Kansas earlier in the day, it’s possible the Jayhawks, Marquette or Tennessee could jump to a No. 1 seed. Tennessee’s next game against a ranked opponent isn’t until the end of the month on Feb. 28 against Auburn.