KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kentucky is returning to the site of one of its more stunning losses in the last few years.
When the Wildcats visited Knoxville last season, they blew a 21-point lead and lost 84-77 to a Tennessee team that went on to finish the year with a 15-19 record. Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne acknowledges that head coach John Calipari has reminded players about that collapse as the Wildcats prepare for Tuesday’s return trip.
“I just remember it being a crazy atmosphere,” Kentucky sophomore forward Isaac Humphries said. “Obviously, everywhere we go it’s a crazy atmosphere. What, were we up 20 or something? … They’re a good team this year and I’m excited to play them and redeem ourselves from last year.”
The fourth-ranked Wildcats (17-2, 7-0) might not be at full strength.
De’Aaron Fox, who has an SEC-leading six assists per game, injured his right ankle Saturday in a victory over South Carolina . Fox is being evaluated daily, leaving his status for Tuesday’s game uncertain.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes lavished praise on Fox by saying that “I’m not sure there’s much he can’t do” but also noted that Kentucky’s strong enough to withstand the freshman guard’s potential absence.
“With or without him, I think Kentucky’s an outstanding team,” Barnes said. “I think John’s done a terrific job again of getting these guys to play the way that they should be playing to be effective. Whether he plays or not, I still know that their program is built on the attitude that if a guy goes down, somebody else is going to step in and we’re going to keep rolling.”
Barnes also downplayed the impact Tennessee’s come-from-behind victory over Kentucky last season might have on the Volunteers’ confidence in pulling an upset Tuesday. After all, most of the key players from last year’s game have moved on.
Kevin Punter Jr. scored 27 points and Armani Moore had 18 points and 13 rebounds that night as Tennessee roared b back from a 34-13 deficit. Both players have since completed their eligibility.
Kentucky has four freshmen in its usual starting lineup, while Tennessee (10-9, 3-4) regularly starts three freshmen. Barnes now wants his underclassmen to adopt the tenacity that Punter and Moore showed in orchestrating that comeback.
“Games can turn quickly, and we know that,” Barnes said. “When I think of that game, I think of those two guys particularly, because what they have is what we are searching for this team to have. It’s a tremendous will to compete every possession.”
That game also exemplified how occasionally played down to the level of inferior opponents last season. The 2015-16 Kentucky squad lost to three teams that finished the season with losing records: UCLA, Auburn and Tennessee.
Kentucky has been more consistent in its approach so far this year while winning seven straight and grabbing sole possession of first place in the SEC. The Wildcats’ only losses are against ranked nonconference foes: No. 8 UCLA and No. 13 Louisville .
That poise will be tested Tuesday. With No. 2 Kansas coming to Rupp Arena on Saturday, Kentucky must resist the temptation of looking past Tennessee.
Kentucky believes it knows better than to overlook anyone. The memories of last season’s trip to Knoxville are still too fresh.
“Tennessee can beat us regardless of what their record is,” Payne said. “We’re playing them at Tennessee. They’re going to be hungry and aggressive against us, and we’ve got to go out and play well to beat them.
“It is what it is. They’re a good team. They’re a tough, scrappy team, and we’ve got to defend and rebound and play Kentucky basketball and be efficient.”
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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