Bruce Pearl talks about the Vols' loss at Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The sign at one end of Rupp Arena told everyone who saw it that Tennessee basketball had returned to normalcy.
The sign read: “We hate you Bruce Pearl,” which is as close as the UT coach will get to a “welcome back” from Kentucky fans.
Other fans were more vocal. “Cheater,” they shouted at Pearl, reminding everyone within earshot why the coach was suspended for his team’s first eight SEC games.
By pointing out Pearl’s variance from the NCAA rulebook, Kentucky fans proved they have as much nerve as passion when it comes to basketball.
Question: What’s the difference between an old NCAA investigator and a new one?
Answer: The new one hasn’t investigated Kentucky basketball.
But what happened late Tuesday night was more about current events than tradition.
Never mind that the Wildcats have won five of the last six games in the series and the last four at home. Their recent success is no longer an example of an established superpower beating up on an up-and-coming underdog.
What’s traditional about winning with freshmen? The Wildcats did it last year and they did it last night.
They just did it with different freshmen.
Last year, the likes of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins led the charge as Kentucky won two of three from the Vols, including a 74-45 rout in the SEC tournament. This time, the freshmen of note in Kentucky’s 73-61 victory were Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight, who combined for 31 points.
Kentucky’s success wasn’t exclusively freshmen-driven. Senior Josh Harrellson was a surprising force inside with 16 points, and junior guard DeAndre Liggins, who had 19 points, was the catalyst to a first-half Wildcats surge that produced a 19-point lead.
But when the Wildcats were at their best, the freshmen were involved.
Like most freshmen, they had their ups and downs, which helps explain how UT cut the 19-point lead to five early in the second half. As those freshmen raised their level of play, UT quickly found itself down by 17.
Calipari’s second wave of freshmen reflects the turnabout in the rivalry. If you discount those nettlesome NCAA issues, UT actually has become the more stable program.
The Vols have had more 20-plus-win seasons in Pearl’s six years than the Wildcats have. And while Pearl has become a conference mainstay worthy of derogatory signs, Kentucky is on its third head coach of the Pearl era.
Those NCAA matters provide more evidence of the role reversal. Long ignored by investigators, the Vols are on the verge of getting penalized — perhaps severely — by the NCAA. Conversely, the Wildcats, who have an infamous history of run-ins with the NCAA, appear downright pristine — or at least as pristine as you can be with Calipari as your front man.
Pearl’s team had a couple of obvious advantages Tuesday over the SEC’s marquee program. It had more experience and depth.
But Kentucky trumped both with talent.
That’s not winning the traditional way. That’s winning the Calipari way.