The 20th-ranked Tennessee men’s basketball team is overrated.
I first made that observation two weeks ago.
Kentucky proved the point Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The wounded Wildcats entered the game with a 7-13 overall record, a 6-7 SEC mark and the unique ability to blow leads in the final four minutes of games.
Instead, John Calipari’s team blew out Tennessee 70-55.
The underachieving Vols are now 8-6 in SEC play despite having, arguably, as good a talent as anyone in the league.
You could make the case that a lot of SEC teams are inconsistent. But no SEC team experiences the extreme highs and lows of the Vols.
Beat South Carolina by 20, lose to Kentucky by 15.
Beat Kansas by 19, lose to Ole Miss by 2.
Beat Vanderbilt by 20, lose to Florida by 26.
Beat Missouri on the road by 20, lose at home to Alabama by 8.
The Vols are so up and down, Dollywood should name a rollercoaster after them.
When you are inconsistent at point guard and inconsistent scoring inside, you will get inconsistent results.
Tennessee displayed some of that inconsistency at Lexington Feb. 6 when the Vols trailed by 10 with 12 minutes left, but won by 11, thanks to a combined 50 points from freshmen Keon Johnson (27 points) and Jaiden Springer (23).
This time, there would be no UT comeback.
Kentucky used a 15-0 run to take a 17-point lead against Tennessee’s overrated defense in the first half and led at the break 45-30. The Wildcats shot 60.7% from the field, hit 6 of 9 from 3-point range and made all five free throw attempts.
It was probably Kentucky’s best half of shooting all season.
You knew Tennessee would make a second-half rally, based on the previous game between the teams and based on Kentucky’s propensity to blow leads.
Kentucky opened the door, starting the second half 1-of-8 from the field, yet UK extended its lead.
Kentucky also missed 19 of its first 22 second-half shots, yet extended its lead.
That seems unfathomable. But it happened, in part because Tennessee had a miserable shooting game. The Vols were 5-for-24 in the second half with 90 seconds left in the game and hit just 1-of-12 3-point tries.
Tennessee was expected to win the SEC, expected to be a top 10 team, expected to contend for the Final Four. Instead, the Vols have been one of the most disappointing teams in the country.
Just when you think Tennessee has turned the corner, they hit a brick wall.
And a program built on player development has seen John Fulkerson and Yves Pons and Santiago Vescovi regress.
Is it possible that Tennessee could make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
Sure. The Vols did so in Cuonzo Martin’s last season. A team that had lost 12 games before the NCAAs and was seeded 11th reached the Sweet 16 with three NCAA tourney wins – tying a school record that has been accomplished only twice.
But Martin’s team qualifies as only the second Tennessee team to make a surprisingly good run in the NCAA Tournament. Bruce Pearl’s 2010 team was a six seed and upset No. 2 seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16 before losing by one point to five-seed Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, Tennessee has only twice beaten a team seeded more than two spots ahead of it in the tournament.
Tennessee has lost as the higher seed eight times, once by 30 as the four seed v. a 12 seed. And it has lost seven NCAA tournament games by double digits.
So, yes, UT could make an NCAA run like the 2014 team.
But history – and inconsistency – suggest this Tennessee team won’t make much noise in the postseason.