LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tennessee post players Jarnell Stokes and Yemi Makanjuola fouled out Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. The loss of one was significant in Kentucky's 75-65 victory.
"Yemi was setting the tone defensively, being physical," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said when asked about the two foul-outs. "When he went out (with 6:47 to play), it was different."
He didn't address what impact Stokes' departure had.
Why would he? UT's sophomore forward didn't show up in the first place.
Stokes had more fouls than points (five to four) and played just 15 minutes in a game that the double-digit underdog Vols often looked capable of winning.
But it's unfair to single out Stokes in sorting out why Tennessee came up short. Junior guard Trae Golden was just as guilty.
Golden's shooting slump has been well documented. So has his recent failure to handle the ball with the care you would expect from a veteran point guard.
He did nothing to change the scouting report as Tennessee lost its fourth consecutive game, dropped to 8-7 and began SEC play 0-3 for the first time since the 1997-98 season. Golden had seven points and six assists, but committed five turnovers and missed two layups.
Rupp Arena normally would be the last place a slumping player or an ailing team goes to get well. However, these freshman-driven Wildcats hardly measure up to coach John Calipari's first three Kentucky teams. They're out of sync offensively, dreadful at the free-throw line (19 of 31 against the Vols) and not nearly as precocious as Calipari's previous NBA-bound freshman classes.
Bottom line: This was a game Tennessee could have won, especially given the effort it expended on defense and the offense delivered by Jordan McRae, who had a game-high 23 points and repeatedly prevailed in one-on-one match-ups with Archie Goodwin. The heralded Kentucky freshman missed eight of 10 field-goal tries and scored only eight points before fouling out.
All the Vols needed was for Stokes and Golden to play up to their ability.
If you were optimistic about this Tennessee team in preseason, you probably would have listed Stokes, Golden, and Jeronne Maymon as three reasons why.
The optimism waned when the season began without Maymon, who had off-season knee surgery. Finally, two weeks ago, Martin announced Maymon would sit out the season, take a redshirt and return next season.
But the Vols are missing Golden and Stokes, too.
Golden averaged 13.6 points and made 38.8 percent of his 3s last season. In the last six games, he is averaging 6.8 points and has made one of 11 3-point attempts. And his ball-handling has been just as deficient.
"He's not playing as well as he's capable of playing," Martin said kindly.
Neither is Stokes, who seemingly has regressed since his freshman season. He looked OK early against Kentucky's twin towers of 7-foot-1 Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-10 Nerlens Noel. Then, he picked up two quick fouls late in the first half.
After that, he might as well have stayed on the bench. In fact, he almost did.
Less than two minutes into the second half, he picked up his third foul. Back to the bench he went.
He returned with 12:41 to play. Sixteen seconds later, he drew his fourth foul. Bench again.
He came back just in time to foul out.
Now, the Vols can only hope he at least comes back to what he was last season. And brings Golden along with him.