Rick Barnes

Kentucky head coach John Calipari asks for a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

No. 20 Kentucky lets 21-point lead slip away, falls at Tennessee

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Leading Tennessee 34-13 with 5:46 remaining in the first half, No. 20 Kentucky looked poised to not only rebound from their loss at No. 4 Kansas but do so in impressive fashion. Things didn’t stay that way however, as the Volunteers finished the half on a 23-8 run to close the margin to six. Rick Barnes’ team continued its run of good play in the second half, going on to beat the Wildcats 84-77 in Knoxville.

Just a couple days after playing one of their best games of the season and appearing to have turned a corner even in defeat, the young Wildcats showed that there’s still plenty of progress to be made.

The difference came at the foul line, where Tennessee outscored Kentucky 30-18 with Kevin Punter responsible for 10 of those points. Punter, who adjusted his shooting motion during the offseason, has been one of the nation’s most improved players. And against Kentucky the senior produced 27 points, and while he shot just 7-for-19 from the field Punter’s ability to create plays off the bounce applied pressure to Kentucky’s half-court defense.

Add in a double-double from Armani Moore, the 6-foot-4 forward who more than held his own against the bigger Wildcats with 18 points, 13 rebounds and four assists, and Tennessee was able to change the flow of the game late in the first half and build on that in the second stanza.

This is a big win for Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, as he looks to provide some much-needed stability for a program that has lacked that in recent years. Beating Kentucky won’t make much of a difference on Tennessee’s résumé; at this point in the season they’ll need to win the SEC tournament to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. But it does provide tangible evidence to the players (not to mention recruits) and fan base that the program is headed in the right direction.

That doesn’t help Kentucky however, and the Wildcats are still having issues when it comes to defending without fouling. Some may be quick to point out the “quality” of the whistle in recent games, but it should be noted that sending opponents to the line has been an issue throughout the year for the Wildcats. Kentucky entered Tuesday ranked 241st in defensive free throw rate (40.1), too high for a team that plays half-court man-to-man defense most of the tim.

Be it defending without fouling or communicating consistently on the defensive end, these are adjustments that have taken longer for Kentucky to work through than some anticipated before the season began.

But how much longer can John Calipari afford to wait for the Wildcats to play with consistent focus, taking care of the “small” details that can be the difference between simply playing in the NCAA tournament and excelling once there? The personnel questions are what they are at this point, with the front court production being inconsistent and the guards led by Tyler Ulis having to do much of the heavy lifting.

But Kentucky had a chance to put their foot on Tennessee’s neck late in the first half, and instead they let the Volunteers back into the game. That proved costly in Knoxville, and as a result the Wildcats dropped to two games behind first-place Texas A&M in the loss column.

Tennessee won’t have Hubbs for game with No. 18 Butler

Robert Hubbs III, Ed Morrow
Associated Press
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee guard Robert Hubbs won’t play Saturday at No. 18 Butler as he recovers from arthroscopic surgery to his right knee.

School officials had indicated Hubbs was doubtful for the Butler game after he underwent the procedure on Dec. 1. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes updated Hubbs’ situation Thursday by saying the 6-foot-4 junior “is making good progress, but he’s not going to be ready for this one.”

Barnes didn’t know when Hubbs might return to action. Hubbs is averaging 15.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game for Tennessee (4-3).

The trip to Butler (7-1) ends a 13-day break from games for Tennessee, which represents the program’s longest layoff during a season since December 1967.

Tennessee counting on Barnes to provide stability

Rick Barnes
Associated Press
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Change remains the only constant at Tennessee.

Tennessee is on its third coach in as many seasons after NCAA issues caused the Volunteers to fire Donnie Tyndall after only one year. Replacing Tyndall is Rick Barnes, who got dismissed at Texas despite leading the Longhorns to NCAA Tournament appearances in 16 of his 17 years on the job.

Barnes has earned NCAA bids 19 of the last 20 years overall and says that remains the goal at Tennessee, even though he’s facing a tough challenge in his debut season.

“I do think that we’ve got to give credit to the previous coaches because we walked into a (good) situation,” Barnes said. “I think we’ve got a group of guys that are going to compete. That’s something that you don’t take for granted. The one thing I do think is that they will compete. Our job now is to teach them to play the way we want them to play.”

Barnes inherits a roster that lacks size and ball handlers. The Vols must replace Josh Richardson, who earned first-team all-Southeastern Conference honors while leading Tennessee to a 16-16 record last year. SEC media have picked Tennessee to finish 12th in the 14-team conference.

The Vols are hoping Barnes can provide the stability that’s been missing from this program the last couple of years.

Last season, Tyndall hadn’t even coached a game at Tennessee when it was revealed that the NCAA was investigating his tenure at Southern Mississippi. Tyndall was fired because Tennessee correctly determined the NCAA would say he’d committed major violations at Southern Mississippi

While many Vols insisted Tyndall’s NCAA issues didn’t bother them during the season – senior forward Derek Reese said he’d actually forgotten about the Southern Mississippi investigation until Tennessee fired Tyndall in March – sophomore guard Detrick Mostella said it “most definitely” was a distraction.

“We didn’t try to let it get to us, but I know some of the players let it get to them,” Mostella said. “It was a big distraction for our team. … It feels much better (now) not having a distraction.”

Although Texas is investigating allegations of academic misconduct in its men’s basketball program, Texas officials have said the university “has no information that suggests” Barnes knew of or was involved in any academic improprieties.

Here are some other things to watch with Tennessee.

WHO’S THE POINT GUARD?: Tennessee doesn’t have a pure point guard available to play because the NCAA ruled freshman Lamonte Turner ineligible for this season. Seniors Kevin Punter and Armani Moore will get the first shots to play the point. Punter’s a natural shooting guard. Moore can play just about any position.

LACK OF SIZE: The Vols have only three players taller than 6-foot-5. Kyle Alexander is 6-9, Ray Kasongo is 6-8 and Reese is 6-7. Alexander’s a freshman. Kasongo, a sophomore, is a Division I newcomer. Tennessee’s lack of size could cause problems.

DIFFERENT DEFENSE: Tennessee’s coaching change has resulted in a switch in defensive strategies. Barnes primarily utilizes a man-to-man defense, while Tyndall favored a matchup zone.

POINTS FROM PUNTER: The Vols will need plenty of scoring from Punter, who averaged 10.3 points per game last season. Barnes has raved about Punter all season and has referred to him as a coach’s dream.

MOORE’S VERSATILITY: Moore has filled just about every possible role for Tennessee the last few years. He was recruited as a point guard but found a home last season as an undersized power forward. Now the Vols will need this stat-sheet stuffer to handle the ball more in his senior season.