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JOE COX: UK's Present Might Yet Inform Its future as Wildcats Sweep Vols

On a day when Kentucky honored past champions and looked ahead to future stars, a pair of freshmen delivered a big victory.

In the middle of the first half of Kentucky’s 66-54 win over No. 10 Tennessee Saturday afternoon, five-star 2023 recruit Justin Edwards was introduced to the Kentucky faithful in Rupp Arena. It was a nice moment, with Edwards getting a big ovation and serving as a quiet reminder, “This is why Calipari is still here.”


After all, in a tumultuous 2022-23 season, perhaps the best reason that John Calipari will still be Kentucky’s basketball coach next fall is Edwards and his fellow UK signees, the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.


But in the game, UK’s two outstanding current freshmen had a message of their own to deliver—don’t sleep on them, either.


Since November, lead guard Cason Wallace has seemed like the quiet key to Kentucky’s success. He has the ability to create his own shot that is often sorely missing from the rest of the Wildcats’ roster. Freshman forward Chris Livingston has been a little more difficult to figure out. After weeks of bemoaning not being able to get him enough playing time, Calipari seems—whether by necessity (injuries to Sahvir Wheeler and CJ Fredrick) or choice to have gotten him into the flow.


It took both Wallace and Livingston to lead Kentucky to an upset of a similarly ailing Vols team in Rupp Arena, for a season sweep of the program against which UK has amassed its most all-time victories (and, as UT fans would not, most all-time losses).


It wasn’t always pretty, but Kentucky relied on a 39-19 halftime advantage and nursed the freshmen home with a critical victory that probably propels that Wildcats back off the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into the season’s final weeks.

Freshman Cason Wallace of Kentucky shoots against the Vols Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena. (UK Athletics Photo by Chet White)

Wallace had 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in the victory, often frustrating UT point guard Zakai Ziegler in the victory. Livingston posted his first collegiate double-double, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds.


Tennessee rallied to as close as eight points twice in the second half, led by a career game by guard Jahmai Mashack, who finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds. UT guard Santiago Vescovi went scoreless in the first half, but had 17 second-half points as UT tried to close the gap.


But Kentucky outrebounded the Vols 40-32, and took a season-high 35 free throws. Tennessee sealed its own doom by going just 4 for 14 from the foul line, and finished the game just 6 for 27 from three-point range.


On a day when UK celebrated its NCAA finalists from 1996 to 1998, the Wildcats served notice that the 2023 Cats could have some NCAA aspersions of their own.


“You either play yourself in or you play yourself out,” said Calipari after the victory, contemplating his team’s NCAA Tournament potential. On Saturday, the Cats probably played themselves in by sweeping the Vols for the season series.


Kentucky picked up the key win against without Wheeler or Fredrick, both of whom are battling injuries. Tennessee was also short handed with Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips both missing the Kentucky game.


“Not everybody is locked in the way we need them to be,” said Vol coach Rick Barnes after the loss, which dropped him to 10-9 against UK during his time in Knoxville. The Vols entered the game off a win over No. 1 Alabama, but fell to their third loss in four games.


Meanwhile, the 18-9 Wildcats will finish SEC play with a game at Florida on Wednesday, where the Gators will be missing standout post star Colin Castleton, who broke his hand recently. UK will then host Auburn and Vandy before traveling to Arkansas to end the regular season.


Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written or co-written nine books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 and can be ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at jrcox004@gmail.com.

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