Takeaways from No. 6 Vols’ Exhibition Win Over Tusculum

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    Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI

    No. 6 Tennessee unofficially kicked off its 2018-19 season with an 87-48 win in an exhibition game against Tusculum on Wednesday night.

    The Vols jumped out to a big lead and never looked back. On the defensive side of the floor, Tennessee was locked in from the jump, allowing just 14 first half points. Offensively, every one got in on the action. Seven of the 10 Vols who saw action scored, as the team shot 50 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from three.

    In the second half, Tennessee came out sloppy but still managed to hold on to at least a 20-point lead throughout the remainder of the game. With the Vols starting off slow in the final 20 minutes, the Pioneers shot 40.7 percent from the field. Tusculum turned the ball over 23.7 percent of the time in the second half compared to 45.7 percent in the first half.

    Here are the main takeaways from Tennessee’s dominating preseason win over Tusculum.

    Locked in on defense

    Championship-level teams are always great on the defensive side of the ball. In Thompson-Boling on Wednesday, Tennessee showed signs that it could have a great defense. Now, Tusculum isn’t the greatest indicator for how good the Vols will be on defense this season, but the UT defense was ready to go from the tip-off.

    Not only was Tennessee locked in as if it were facing an SEC opponent, but Rick Barnes’ squad was very active. Jumping passes, clogging the lane, being physical off the ball and active hands forced Tusculum into 16 first half turnovers. Tennessee contested shot after shot, leading to the Pioneers shooting just 25 percent in the first half.

    “In the first half, I thought defensively we were getting stops and consecutive stops and allowing us to get out and push the ball,” Rick Barnes said following the game. “They were changing defenses and we have spent a ton of time working against zone because we were confident that we could handle it, and we did.”

    “Coach Schwartz tells us all the time, ‘get deflections, get your hands on the ball,'” Jordan Bowden said of the defense. “That’s what energizes our team. Deflections and steals.”

    In the second half, Tusculum found a rhythm with the Vols defense not as engaged as they were during the opening 20 minutes. After outscoring the Pioneers in the first half 42-14, Tennessee only won the second half 45-34. The Vols allowed Tusculum to score 19 points in the first eight minutes of the second half after allowing just 14 first half points.

    “In the second half, they were driving the ball hard at us, and we have to do a better job there,” Barnes said. “We should be playing at a high level for the whole game. There should not be any let down at all.”

    Jordan Bowden shines

    The junior guard led the way for No. 6 Tennessee, dropping in 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field. Bowden was 2-of-3 from behind the 3-point line and added two assists. Defensively, he was everywhere for Tennessee. Bowden played with a lot of energy on defense, forcing several Tusculum turnovers and even breaking away for a furious slam. He had two steals on the evening.

    After Jordan Bone, Tennessee doesn’t have a true No. 2 point point guard. Against Tusculum, Bowden played a significant portion of the second half at point. It’s something that, according to Bowden, he feels comfortable doing.

    “This preseason, I’ve been running in and out of the one a lot,” Bowden said following the game. “It’s one thing I need to get comfortable at. Once I get comfortable with it I’ll be good.”

    “”We want three guys at least,” Barnes said of the point guard situation. “The fact is, we need that to be able to keep constant pressure. Our whole defense is predicated on trying to keep pressure on the point guard for 40 minutes and two guys can’t do that the way we want to.”

    Bowden looked like a player on Wednesday who had been in the gym all offseason long. You could tell just by the way he carried himself that he’s gained a lot of confidence and feels more comfortable. It’s early, but if Bowden is locked in as he was tonight throughout the season, he’ll be a difference-maker this season.

    “I’m always confident,” Bowden said following the game. “I put in the reps.”

    10 Strong

    One of the many reasons people are so high on Tennessee is because of how deep Rick Barnes can reach on his bench. Throughout the first action of the season, Barnes played all 15 of his players, including the walk-ons. But in terms of what the rotation will look like during the season, Barnes used 10 different players.

    The fact is I feel very comfortable with this lineup playing 10 guys.,” Barnes said. “We had some lineups out there, and we were doing some things early with some different lineups.”

    Despite being the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner was second off the bench. Yves Pons, an athletic sophomore, was the first off the bench. In 16 minutes, the Frenchman scored six points, swatted a ball back to France, and hauled in three rebounds. His six points came on 2-of-2 shooting from three.

    “I’ve been working hard on my perimeter shot,” Pons said. “I feel more comfortable in the offense.”

    Next off the bench was John Fulkerson, who looked good against the Pioneers. He was active on defense and tallied five assists. Derrick Walker and Jalen Johnson were the ninth and 10th guys off the bench, respectively.

    “We can bring offensive rebounding,” Walker responded when asked what he, Johnson, and Pons can bring off the bench. “We just have to come in and do our job and do what the coaches ask us. We’re a talented group of guys.”

    Walker, a sophomore forward, energized Tennessee’s second unit, scoring eight points and hauling in seven rebounds.

    “I feel like I’m more prepared to come in and do what I’m supposed to do,” Walker said. “Last year, I would get in and be timid because (Rick) Barnes would be in the back of my mind.

    “I’ve learned to control that and do what I do. You just gotta realize Barnes is always going to be Barnes. It’s nothing you can do about it.”

    Rebound, Rebound, Rebound

    Barnes was in mid-season form tonight when it came to holding Grant Williams accountable.

    With Williams’ best interest in mind, Barnes is known to get after the star junior when he feels like he’s not producing to the level he’s capable of. Tonight, Barnes highlighted Williams’ efforts on the boards. The reigning SEC Player of the Year had just three rebounds on the night.

    “That’s the biggest stat he’ll be judged by at his height,” Barnes said of Williams. “That’s an attitude. He either has to think about wanting to score or wanting to do both. He’s not making any effort to get to the boards. There’s no way he should have three rebounds in a game like this.

    “The fact is, we challenged him on it, but he allowed Yves to take it away from him twice. Yves went up and took two away from him. That’s the mentality that he has to have. Kyle (Alexander) really started trying to do that, same with Derrick Walker. Those guys started doing that, and we need them to start rebounding the ball. Grant is a guy that should be averaging 10 rebounds a game.”

    Williams did contribute 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting. He added three blocks, two assists, and a steal as well.

    Took Care of Business

    The most important aspect of Tennessee’s exhibition was to come away healthy, dominate an inferior opponent, and play clean basketball.

    UT finished the game with no known injuries and played relatively clean basketball. Tennessee committed 16 turnovers on the night, but that should be somewhat expected as this is the first game of the season against somebody other than themselves.

    The Vols shot a high percentage on the evening, knocking down 54.9 percent of their shots from the field. Tennessee shot 50 percent from distance, making eight of its 16 three-point attempts. Individually, Bowden was 5-of-7 for 16 points and Kyle Alexander was 3-of-3 for seven points.

    Rick Barnes won’t be happy with the turnovers and the start to the second half, but it was clear Tennessee was the superior team on Wednesday.

    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.