Wednesday night served as somewhat of a wake-up call for Tennessee basketball fans who may have been energized by some of the what they’d seen so far this season.
While the record hasn’t been great, the effort and the progression of this young 2016-17 hoops team had been, at times, very promising.
The Vols, playing with one of the youngest rosters in the nation and against one of the toughest schedules, battled in five losses to ranked opponents – taking them all down to the final moments in one way or another. They blew out Georgia Tech of the ACC. They went on the road against a good ETSU team and pulled out a tough win. SEC play started with a bang when they went to College Station and dropped Texas A&M by 10 in a game that wasn’t even really that close.
But reality has slowly crept in since that point. Coming off the win against the Aggies, Tennessee let Arkansas come to Knoxville and get a victory. The effort was there at Florida, but the execution wasn’t. The Vols ended up losing by 13 after keeping it competitive for about 37 minutes.
It really set in on Wednesday, however. Frank Martin brought his big, physical and defensive-minded South Carolina team to Knoxville and punched the Vols around all evening. A 9-0 run at the end of the first half gave the Vols a bit of life. Realistically, however, they were never truly in it as the Gamecocks held a double-digit advantage for a majority of the contest and never let the Vols back within two possessions in the final 10 minutes on their way to a 70-60 victory.
Following a 19-turnover effort at Florida, the Vols gave it away 22 times against the Gamecocks. That was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the Vols also forced 22 turnovers, but the poor shooting couldn’t be justified. Tennessee hit just 33-percent of its shots from the field. Only one 3-pointer – a fortuitous bounce on a Lamonte Turner shot in the final minutes – fell all evening. Nine percent was the final tally from behind the arc.
All that led to this fair question for Rick Barnes after the game: Is Tennessee regressing?
“No, because I believe other teams get better,” the always candid Rick Barnes responded. “South Carolina is 13-3 and they have been there. They were right there last year. Our league is better than people think it is, but the key is that there is more room for us to get better. Our guard play has regressed. We had problems the last two games and maybe that is my fault with me trying to get (Jordan) Bone in there quicker than he was ready, but it is obvious that teams are teeing up against us on the perimeter and getting after our guards. When you are being pressured you have to beat the pressure. We are still not handling the ball like we need to. The fact is that we have to get better.”
The ball pressure was relentless last night from South Carolina. It’s one of the things the Gamecocks do best, but the scouting report is spreading around the league on the Vols. Get up in the UT guards’ grills and make them try to beat you with a backdoor pass. In the past few games, they haven’t been able to.
Youth is a big factor in that. Two of the team’s primary ball handlers – Jordan Bone and Turner – are both first-year players. Turner, at least, had the benefit of a redshirt season and has been healthy all season. Bone, perhaps the team’s truest ball handler, on the other hand is being thrown into the fire. He played just two full games before being put on the shelf until SEC play due to a foot injury. Now he’s learning on the job, and Wednesday’s five-turnover performance is proof of that.
Attrition is a factor as well. The Vols have been without promising freshman forward John Fulkerson, a do-it-all type of player who helps out on both ends, since Dec. 15. He might be gone for the year with an elbow injury. And Wednesday marked the start of the post-Detrick Mostella era after the junior guard was booted from the program on Tuesday.
Barnes pointed out that Mostella, like the other UT guards, struggled with pressure, so he didn’t view his absence as a huge blow.
“He hates, more than these guys, playing against pressure,” Barnes said of Mostella. “Again, that’s why he struggled at Florida Saturday, so again, it wouldn’t have been a difference because South Carolina – they pressure better than anybody we’ve played and do a better job. And again, he, like our guards, haven’t shown that they want to play against that kind of pressure.”
The Vols, however, did appear to miss Mostella’s offensive prowess. Barnes called it “feast-or-famine,” but it had been more of the former recently with Mostella averaging 16.4 points per game over the past five contests. He hit three 3-pointers in each of those past five games as well – triple UT’s total output on Wednesday.
There are some winnable games around the corner for Tennessee. And there are certainly some bright spots and reasons for optimism. Grant Williams continues to play well, the young guards will get better and Barnes hasn’t forgotten how to coach. The other sideline on Wednesday can serve as a reminder. Martin – also a former successful Big 12 coach – was in a similar spot with the Gamecocks in Year 2. A few years down the line, he has a team that very well could be in the NCAA tournament this year.
Wednesday still reminded that there’s a long way to go for the Vols, however. They looked more like the team picked to finish 13th in the league, not the promising squad that almost knocked North Carolina off and started league play 1-0.
“I didn’t enjoy watching our team play tonight,” Barnes said. “I thought it was the first time all year that we were really tentative for long periods of time, and that is what was really disappointing.”