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3 things we learned from Tennessee’s 71-52 demolition of Kentucky

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The Wildcats need Reid Travis, and Tennessee is getting the guard play it needs to win a national title.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7 Tennessee got proper revenge for its 86-69 loss to Kentucky two weeks ago by hammering the fourth-ranked Wildcats 71-52 Saturday afternoon in Knoxville.

The victory moves the Volunteers a full game ahead of Kentucky in the SEC standings, and into a first-place tie with LSU. The Tigers also sit at 14-2 after scoring a 74-69 road win over Alabama on Saturday.

Here are the other three things you need to know about Saturday’s top 10 showdown at Thompson-Boling Arena:

1. Reid Travis can’t get healthy soon enough for Kentucky

It’s not exactly a bold take to say that Kentucky needs big man Reid Travis — who has missed the last three games with a sprained right knee — back and healthy in order to make a run at the national title this month. But the extent to which Travis matters to the Wildcats against quality opponents was on full display Saturday afternoon.

Sure, Travis’ 11.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game speak loudly enough on their own, but the grad transfer’s true significance might be better personified by taking a look at PJ Washington’s numbers against the Vols.

In the first game against Tennessee, the brawnier Travis drew the defensive assignment of national Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams — who scored 16 points but attempted just four field goals — allowing Washington to conserve more energy and focus for the offensive end. Washington responded by looking like the best player on the floor, scoring 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting while dominating the inside. This was a far cry from Washington’s performances in his final two games against Williams and UT in 2017-18, where he scored a total of nine points and didn’t make a single shot from the field.

Without the advantage of having Travis with him in the post on Saturday, Washington’s play looked much more similar to his output against the Vols as a freshman. The SEC Player of the Year candidate made just two field goals, and finished with more turnovers (4) than rebounds (3). Having to play more physical on the defensive end also resulted in Washington picking up two fouls early in the first half. When John Calipari was forced to put his star on the bench, Tennessee promptly responded with a 9-0 run, giving the Volunteers a control of the game they would never relinquish.

To further the point, two weeks ago, UK outscored UT by 14 in the paint. On Saturday, the Vols outscored the Cats by that same amount in that same category.

Kentucky can be really, really good without Travis, but they can’t be national championship good unless he’s back and 100 percent by the time the Big Dance rolls around.

2. Tennessee is still very much in the 1-seed discussion

The stories of UT’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Sure, the Volunteers might not have looked as dominant in February as they did in the previous three months, and sure they took a lopsided loss at Kentucky and a heartbreaking loss at LSU, but any question that this is still one of the five or six best teams in college basketball was put to bed on Saturday. The performance also made sure that Tennessee is still one of the five or six teams most likely to hear its name called as a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.

Everyone knows how great Grant Williams is and how hot Admiral Schofield is capable of getting. The question when it comes to Tennessee’s NCAA tournament prospects has always been whether or not the Vols can get significant production from their one and two guards against elite backcourts.

Jordan Bone answered that question in the affirmative by torching Ashton Hagans and Kentucky to the tune of 27 points on 11 of 15 shooting from the field. The junior from Nashville buried all five of his three-point attempts and produced three assists and zero turnovers in 35 minutes of floor time.

There are a number of cliches that highlight the significance of guard play in March, and for good reason, history shows there’s a direct correlation between stellar guard play and deep NCAA tournament runs. For this reason, Bone — who also scored 19 points in the first game against UK — showing that he’s capable of this type of performance against that level of competition is a big deal for Rick Barnes and company.

As far as its resume is concerned, Tennessee now owns a sparkling 8-3 record in Quad games, and its only three losses of the season have come in overtime against a fully healthy Kansas team, and in road games against the top 15 duo of Kentucky and LSU.

There’s still work to be done, but the Vols certainly have a fairly clear path towards a spot on the top line of the field of 68.

3. We need a rubber match in the SEC title game

Sorry, LSU. You’re great too, but we’re going to need Tennessee-Kentucky on a neutral floor to kick off Selection Sunday.

It’s not surprising that both the Wildcats and the Volunteers held serve against the other at home. Kentucky has now lost four straight games in Knoxville, but had won 11 straight against the Vols in Lexington before last season. But the manner in which each smacked the other around in their victory was jarring.

As dominant as Kentucky was in its 17-point win last month, Tennessee was even more so in its 19-point triumph on Saturday. How much of that role-reversal is due to Travis being out? Did Tennessee just need the first beat-down to regain the fire it played with at the beginning of the season? Which team is the safer bet to carry its season all the way into the first week of April?

These questions can’t be answered without a game three in Nashville.