Where do Kentucky and Tennessee go from here?

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee got what it wanted from Kentucky on Tuesday night. Coach Donnie Tyndall altered his zone to, as he called it, “sandwich,” the pair of 7-footers that the No. 1 and unbeaten Wildcats almost always keep on the floor (easy when you have four of them) and took his chances with the 3-pointer. Kentucky took the bait, firing up 22 shots from behind the arc, and cooperated with Tyndall’s game plan by making just five of them.

But herein lies the rub, and why Kentucky is probably going to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish off a season unbeaten. Tennessee played as hard as I’ve seen it play, dating back to the Bruce Pearl years. The Vols corralled 19 offensive rebounds—the ultimate hustle stat—and outscored the Wildcats in the paint, 34-22. But they lost by 18.

How was that possible? If you’re a Kentucky fan, you’re going to love this, because it suggests growth from a team that, despite the presence of Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison brothers, is still one of the youngest in the country.

Tennessee made just 2 of 17 3-pointers. Few teams, if any, are equipped to handle all Kentucky’s size, and though the Vols’ tried valiantly, that points in the paint advantage came largely off drives and tip-ins. There was no way they were going to throw the ball into spindly freshmen “big” men Willie Carmichael and Tariq Owens and expect them to lay a drop-step on Cauley-Stein and roll to the rim, or shoot an over-the-left-shoulder jump hook over Karl Anthony-Towns. Very few teams in the country can score mano-a-mano in the paint on Kentucky.

No, the only way to beat Kentucky is make threes, and the Vols could muster only two. But as coaches often say about their opponents—give Kentucky credit. Calipari has convinced his players from the beginning of the season that they only way they were going to lose was if a team went off on them from 3. I lost track of how many of the Vols’ perimeter shots were tipped by aggressive Kentucky defenders. Therein lies my theory.

To close out an undefeated season, all the Wildcats have to do is close out—on the perimeter.

“We said before the game there would be three keys [to beating Kentucky],” Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. To try and stay even on the glass, which we did. Then try to play with twelve turnovers or less, which we didn’t quite accomplish [19]. Finally, we would have to make a minimum of ten three pointers.

“We were close on the turnovers, we did it on the glass, but we didn’t shoot the ball very well. All that is credited to Kentucky, because they are a heck of a defensive team at every position, challenges and bothers shots, and certainly bothered us some tonight.”

Close out to close out. That’s Kentucky’s story.

But what of Tennessee? What will become of the rest of the Vols’ season, now that they’re 14-11 overall and 6-7 in the SEC?

An NCAA tournament bid, barring what would be a stunning achievement to win the SEC tournament next month, is out of the question. But an NIT bid is possible, and with the mess Tyndall inherited, and the allegations of improprieties at his former school, Southern Miss, dogging him since last fall, this, in a way, has been one of the Vols’ most successful seasons in years.

But this team won’t be measured by its wins and losses, nor should it, considering that six players—four recruits and then-freshmen Darius Thompson and A.J. Davis—decided they didn’t want to play for Tyndall and bolted for other schools.

Tennessee fans can’t be blamed for thinking of what might have been. What if big man Phil Cofer, probably the only legitimate SEC player former Cuonzo Martin and his staff signed, had stayed? He’s averaging 6.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 22.5 minutes a game for Florida State and is shooting 47 percent from the field. Cofer’s started 17 times for an ACC school, Oh yes, he’d have helped.

What if Thompson had stayed around? The untold story was that he really wanted to, but his father, the coach at Cumberland University, wanted him to leave. Thompson landed at Virginia, the No. 2-ranked team in the country. Cavalier coach Tony Bennett hasn’t built a program that good by taking a chance on transfers who can’t play. How much different would the Vols have been if the 6-4 Thompson were averaging 32 minutes the point, and the overworked Josh Richardson could have focused on what he does best—scoring and defending?

We’ll never know the answers to those questions, but if Cofer and Thompson were on the roster, here’s an educated guess—Tennessee would be 18-7, four wins better off, and still in play for an NCAA bid.

That Tyndall has won 14 times, including 4-2 on the road in the SEC, with the team he hastily threw together, speaks to his X and O acumen, his ability to compel his team to play hard. The future, if the NCAA hangman doesn’t drape his noose around Tyndall’s neck, is promising.

But this season isn’t over. The NIT could await. The Vols have five games remaining, only two of which—Vanderbilt and South Carolina at home—they’ll be favored to win. The others are at Ole Miss, at Florida, and at the same LSU team that beat Tennessee over the head with a blunt instrument last Saturday, winning by 18 in Knoxville.

If Tennessee, only 2-5 in league games at Thompson-Boling Arena, can reverse that trend and beat the Commodores and Gamecocks, that’s 16 wins. Something tells me there’s another road win waiting out there, perhaps against the Gators, whose own NCAA tournament dreams have gone out the window, or Ole Miss, which is desperately trying to lock down its second NCAA bid in three years. But the Vols will know everything the Rebels run, thanks to assistant coach Al Pinkins, who worked for Ole Miss and coach Andy Kennedy for three years.

A 3-2 finish would all but insure the NIT committee comes calling. That SEC home-court record might be troubling, but the Vols also beat Kansas State, No. 19 Butler and No. 18 Arkansas in Knoxville, and so far they’ve lost only one game—to Mississippi State—they probably should have won. Tennessee’s strength of schedule (No. 46 in RPIratings.com and No. 12 in ESPN’s BPI) will bode well.

The Vols’ third NIT bid in four years might not quicken the pulse of some fans. But considering how far this team has come since Tyndall had four scholarship players on his roster late last April, the NIT would represent genuine progress.

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