Tennessee opened the Rick Barnes era with a win over UNC Asheville on Friday evening at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Here are five big takeaways from the Vols’ 82-78 win.
1. Punter shoulders the scoring load
With 2014-15’s leading scorer Josh Richardson gone, Tennessee knew coming into this season that it would need a primary scorer to step up. As many expected, Kevin Punter appears to be a leading candidate to fill that void. He topped his career high of 18 points early in the second half and finished up the game with 31 points on an impressive night of shooting (10-14 FG; 3-6 from 3-point range). The senior hit arguably his most important buckets from the free-throw line with eight seconds remaining, giving the Vols the deciding 82-78 edge after UNC Asheville was unable to score in the final seconds.
2. Hubbs makes key plays before late exit
With the Vols struggling to close it out late, Tennessee got some huge contributions on both ends of the floor from Robert Hubbs – who finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. His offense was especially timely. He hit three buckets between 6:41 and 3:40 marks of the second half as the Vols worked to finish off a pesky UNC Asheville team that wouldn’t go away. And on the other end of the floor, he had a huge block at the 1:27 mark that led to a Kevin Punter bucket on the other end, giving UT a 76-72 lead in the closing moments. Hubbs went down after that block and had to be carried off, but Rick Barnes said it was just a cramping issue and didn’t indicate any fear of further damage.
3. Too close for comfort
It’s certainly better than the alternative, but Tennessee has to leave Friday night with a feeling that its work is cut out for it after a UNC Asheville team that didn’t come into this contest with much fanfare pushed the Vols to the brink at Thompson-Boling in the debut for Rick Barnes at Tennessee. The Bulldogs led as late as the 3:04 mark of the game and even cut it down to one possession with 10 seconds remaining before Punter’s free throws iced it for the Vols. The Vols got the win, but weren’t clearly the better team on the court for a lot of the evening. Closer-than-expected wins and upsets are pretty commonplace in college basketball as teams look for their identity, so the Vols will be glad to work on mistakes after getting the W.
4. Not enough “gang rebounding”
This roster simply doesn’t have that bully in the middle that is going to consistently pull down 10+ boards per game. That’s why Rick Barnes said he needs to see more gang rebounding as he termed it, with more guards crashing the boards in addition to whatever big men are on the floor. UNC Asheville – not a particularly huge team itself, won the rebounding battle 36-33. Barnes was particularly upset that three starters – Devon Baulkman, Robert Hubbs and Kevin Punter – combined for zero rebounds on the defensive end. The Vols can survive against a lesser opponent doing that, but Barnes made it clear that it can’t be acceptable going forward as UT looks to make up for its lack of size and strength inside.
5. They are who we thought they were
It’s probably dangerous to make too many general assumptions about this team after one game, but just based on the first 40 minutes against a mediocre-at-best opponent, there are certainly plenty of concerns and issues that must be improved upon. This appears to be a team with a couple guy capable of going off for big nights with a gritty do-it-all player in Armani Moore and then a lot of questions outside of that. There’s little question that this season will be a challenge. Barnes himself said he’s expecting a ton of close games. There’s no reason for panic after one closer-than-expected contest, but Tennessee must find more intensity on the defensive side, be stronger in the paint, find some consistency off the bench and hit more 3-pointers to be successful against better opponents.
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) November 14, 2015