KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) -- After his University of Kentucky basketball team lost to Tennessee 88-58 Saturday, John Calipari said he was going to burn the tape.
Good idea. Burn the Nike promotional uniforms, too. And the stat sheet. Burn the game plan. Shoot, burn this column. Burn the highlights.
(Disclaimer: Please do not actually burn anything. The language is not literal. It is symbolic, much like apocalyptic writings. What does it symbolize you ask? UK's NCAA Tournament hopes going up in smoke, for one thing. But I digress.)
It was, Calipari is correct, an afternoon to forget. The last time UK lost a game by this many points, Josh Harrellson had to ride the equipment truck home. UK could've used Harrellson on Saturday. It pulled down a paltry nine defensive rebounds. Tennessee had 15 offensive rebounds. Translation: The Vols rebounded more of their own missed shots than UK did.
That's a hustle stat, a toughness stat. Those are things UK did not bring in abundance on Saturday. After the game, Calipari said his team had turned in two bad days of practice, and that Friday was, "our worst practice in four years." He said his players, facing their first game of the season without Nerlens Noel, seemed, "anxious, worried, nervous."
The loss of Noel made big difference, yes. But a 30-point difference?
"The way we played, the way they played, we'd have got beat even if Nerlens played," Calipari said. "Big."
The one thing this UK team needed was a decent start. Anything to build a spark of confidence. Didn't happen. The Vols led by nine after five minutes. With 12:56 left in the half, Armani Moore missed a shot and it wedged between the backboard and rim. Possession belonged to UK, but officials gave the ball to Tennessee.
The Vols subsequently got a three-pointer by Skylar McBee to make it 22-10. During a timeout a minute and a half later, UK assistant John Robic was whistled for a technical and ejected from the game for arguing the call with official Doug Shows. After a pair of Tennessee free throws and another Vols jumper, UT led 28-12, and it was over.
"I knew right after John was thrown and all that stuff happened that the game was over," Calipari said. "Then my thing was let's just keep fighting. Let's just battle."
Over the next 30 minutes of game time, Calipari tried a little of everything. He screamed. He exhorted. He consoled. He encouraged. He even retreated. During the last full timeout, Calipari actually walked out of the huddle on the court and went back and sat on the bench.
"Is anybody listening in this huddle?" Calipari said he asked himself. "I'm not wasting my breath. You're not listening."
In the game's final 16 minutes, UK never got closer than 27.
Calipari started Jared Polson in place of Ryan Harrow. Polson had 11 points and 4 rebounds in 22 minutes, but did not have an assist. Harrow wasn't effective off the bench. He did not have a point or an assist and fouled out after 18 minutes played, which included multiple defensive breakdowns.
All season, UK has been able to funnel opposing ballhandlers into the paint and let Noel swat away their attempts. Against Tennessee, those drives became layups. The Wildcats have not had to force turnovers or take charges. Now, they need to.
And the problems on offense are just as dire. Kyle Wiltjer had 18 points, but most were after the issue had long been settled.
In 2009, Jodie Meeks came into Thompson-Boling Arena and scored 54 points by himself. It was all UK could do as a team to muster 58 on Saturday, after beating Tennessee 75-65 in their first meeting. The offensive issues, too, aren't all Noel.
Alex Poythress was a non-factor. Willie Cauley-Stein is still looking to find his way. Archie Goodwin still isn't facilitating. And Calipari still doesn't have an answer for how this team needs to play offensively.
But more than those problems, Calipari has to worry about young players not accepting the challenge in front of them -- or even basic coaching, for that matter.
"We have a couple of guys who are basically not real coachable," Calipari said. "You tell guys over and over and over what we have to do, and they do their own things. And that's where we are. And they realize if we don't do this all together, we're going to have many more of these.
". . . But we (as coaches) can't go out there and fight for them. We can't battle. We can't beat them to 50-50 balls as a staff. We can't want it more than we do."
Calipari said he's come to Tennessee and suffered blowout losses before (at Memphis). He's never suffered a defeat this lopsided at UK. And it was Tennessee's largest margin of victory in the 103-year history of the rivalry.
Tennessee now has won five straight games against defending national champions. It has more wins over UK (67) than any other opponent. And it also now is tied with one other team (Louisville) for most wins over Calipari since he returned to the college game in 2000-01 (six).
"We came into an inspired team," Calipari said. "I told them, I've had a couple of teams come in here and get smoked like this. The difference is those teams learned from it and moved on. They deserved to beat us by 50 today. They played harder, rougher, they were stronger with the ball. We had guys who were passive, tentative. Willie is still trying to find his way.
". . . It was their chance to beat us, a wounded animal. And they rolled the car over us a few times -- over, back, over, back, to make sure we died. Cuonzo (Martin, Tennessee coach) had those guys (starters) in at the end, and I had absolutely had no problem with that. He's trying to get his team right; he's not worried about our team."
But Calipari, and the UK fan base, certainly, very much are. Tennessee is playing better as the season progresses, but it is not an NCAA Tournament team.
And neither, until it works some things out, is Kentucky. The game devolved as it went on. There were technical fouls. Tennessee shot 58 percent for the game. UK turned it over 15 times leading to 24 Volunteer points. Tennessee outscored UK 40-22 in the paint and 30-8 off the bench.
"I'm going to try whatever I can, and at the end of the day let's see where this goes," Calipari said. "It doesn't look good right now. But I've had seasons where it looked bad and took off, and where it looked good and didn't end up so good.
". . . If they weren't embarrassed by this . . . then they shouldn't be at Kentucky."
Where does Calipari turn from here? Truthfully, he couldn't say. He hasn't figured out the right offensive scheme for this team yet. And his time is running out. But he knows what he's telling his players:
"Nerlens got us to where we are right now," he said. "We've got four home games and two road games, what do you want to do? What you're doing isn't going to work, it already showed. What I did as a coach offensively didn't work. What we did defensively was not good. So I've got to go back and do my thing and figure it out. . . . Your hope is they have it in them to change, to be tougher, to be more focused, to play for each other versus playing for yourself. You hope it's in there, and I believe it is. But right now we're not showing that."
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