Knockin’ Heads Off

With 13:45 left to go in the first half, John Fulkerson did his wacky tube man thing and flung himself into the Kentucky bench. Fulkerson presumably did not mean any ill will; he is just a goofy basketball player trying to keep a ball in bounds, which is what he did. Fulkerson flung a three-point miss by Zakai Zeigler off the leg of Lance Ware, who had checked in just 12 seconds prior. The score was Kentucky 17, Tennessee 15. To that point, Kentucky had done little wrong: 8-for-13 from the field, getting good looks, and forcing Tennessee to score like crazy to keep up with them.

If nothing had happened once Fulkerson landed in the Kentucky bench, maybe that continues. I don’t really know, because it’s an alternate universe we’ll never find out about. Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi rush over to pick their teammate up. On the way, they are blocked by Kentucky’s strength and conditioning coach, Robert Harris.

What Harris meant to do by this, I assume we also will never know. Harris has a Twitter, and as of the time of writing, this is his most recent tweet:

If he never tweets again, this is unintentionally a great one to leave Twitter on. (He has no likes related to the game, and frankly, I have to assume Calipari has him under a media gag order for the time being.) Once Harris gets in the face of Vescovi and Zeigler – his real mistake – most of Tennessee’s team rushes over. That’s when the havoc begins.

Harris pushes Zeigler, and the strength coach puts so much force and brute muscle behind his push that Zeigler barely moves at all. Tennessee’s players notice that and surround Harris. Right now, it’s four players against one Harris. Then Kentucky leaves their bench. Then Tennessee does, too. At its peak, the collection of bodies simply looks like either a line for the restroom or a men’s prayer circle, whichever you so choose.

None of what happens in that circle looks of interest on its face. None of what happens at the end of this video is interesting, either. But I can tell you this: after that video cuts off, multiple Tennessee players were jumping up and down, attempting to pump the crowd up and cease the booing. And it worked. They understood the core logic of the stupidest, best song ever created and translated it to the floor.

After this battle, Zakai Zeigler and the Kentucky bench received offsetting technical fouls. The Kentucky bench, as a basketball unit, was almost entirely useless outside of Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz. The Kentucky bench, as a coaching unit, proved extremely helpful to Tennessee’s fortunes.

The very next shot was a made mid-range two by Kennedy Chandler. Two possessions later, the next shot was a Kennedy Chandler three. Then another on the fast break. Kentucky missed 11 shots in a row, while Tennessee hit seven of nine. A 17-15 Kentucky lead turned into a 32-18 Tennessee one. After halftime, the margin would never get shorter than Tennessee +8. The players immediately involved in that sideline battle – Fulkerson, Vescovi, and Zeigler – put up a combined 46 of Tennessee’s 76 points, 40 of which were after that battle ended.

You can think about it in this lane: those three players alone, who weren’t looking for trouble until trouble found them by way of a strength coach, nearly outscored Kentucky the rest of the way by themselves. That’s what I’d call knockin’ heads off. Tennessee came to fight. Kentucky tried to, then they limped away, bruised and battered and wondering where it all went wrong. I can point you to exactly where you went wrong: 13:45 on the clock, first half, when you thought it was a good idea to give Zakai Zeigler and Tennessee’s entire team an extra boost of energy.

The actual basketball upshot of a game like that is obvious. Tennessee now holds wins over KenPom’s #2 and #3 teams, and even if Tennessee’s students are chanting “overrated” as time winds down, I would invite them not to. Please think about that again: wins over two of the nation’s three best teams, as determined by the nation’s best advanced metrics site. The only other team in Tennessee history to do this since KenPom has existed (2001-pres.) is the 2005-06 Bruce team that became one of the most beloved units in program history.

After all of the gnashing of teeth about the offense for the last few months, it’s now up to 27th in America, the second-best offense of the Barnes era behind the obvious one. The defense is now #4, which would make it the best defense Barnes has had at Tennessee. There’s a very real chance that this particular team, at least by the metrics sites, is the best that Tennessee has had. Not just in the KenPom era, but ever. Think about that for a second. I’d still take the 2018-19 team myself, but this is making a strong case for being no worse than one of the three best Tennessee basketball teams in modern program history.

I say we sit back and enjoy it. Nights like last night are rare; crowds like last night’s are rare as well. Thompson-Boling Arena has 21,678 seats, and on a Tuesday night where tipoff didn’t occur until 9:05 PM and I personally did not hit our home driveway until 12:29 AM, every single one of those seats was packed with a screaming fan. This is the fifth Kentucky-Tennessee game I have attended in Knoxville, and by a wide margin, this one had the lowest amount of blue I’ve ever seen.

Tennessee is now 10-3 in SEC play, tied with Kentucky for second. They’re now favored in all five remaining SEC games. While I personally think it may take a miracle from God above to win at Arkansas, anything feels possible with this team. A month ago, they were 11-5, 2-3 in SEC play, and had just gotten smoked by their rival to the tune of giving up 107 points on the road. It wasn’t an exciting time to be writing about the program, especially when it seemed they were headed towards their usual style of season in March.

Instead, here we are, and Tennessee has by some measures its most well-rounded team (in terms of top-30 offense & defense) since the 2013-14 team that came within two points of an Elite Eight bid. Tennessee is projected to finish 14-4 in SEC play, which would merely tie the second-highest win total posted by Tennessee in SEC play since 1977. I am greatly enjoying the renaissance of this team and, at large, the program. The roster’s stuffed with lovable kids and two old men (one being Fulkerson) that back down from nothing and are ready for a street brawl. Tennessee genuinely hasn’t had a team like that in a long time. I suggest hopping on the bandwagon while there’s still room.

I only have one thing in Various Notes for this game: if you are this person, thank you.

I cannot say much about this for personal reasons, but I would love to experience a moment like that with my grandfather again. Thanks for this wonderful moment and, uh, for making my wife tear up next to me.


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