No. 6 Tennessee tipped off its season on Tuesday night with an 86-41 win over Rick Barnes’ alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne.
After battling back-and-forth with the Bears to start the game, Tennessee went on a 30-12 run to finish out the first half and take a commanding 50-30 lead into intermission.
Lenoir-Rhyne’s ability to knock down shots from the 3-point line kept the Bears in the game early on. With 11:15 to go in the first half, Lenoir-Rhyne knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the Tennessee lead to 20-18. At that point, the Bears were 6-of-10 from deep but had not made a shot from within the arch.
“I didn’t think we started off the game offensively the way we wanted to,” Rick Barnes said following the win. “As the half went on, we got better at not running people off of the line and we started to stay in front.”
Tennessee’s defense tightened up to end the opening 20 minutes, and it carried over into the second half. After allowing 30 first half points, the Vols held the Bears to just 11 second half points and outscored them 36-11.
The result was a 45-point win to start the season. Here are the main takeaways from No. 6 Tennessee’s season-opening win.
Taking Care of Business
The last thing Tennessee wanted following an offseason full of hype was an embarrassing loss on its home court to start the season. With the Champions Classic featuring match-ups of No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kansas and No. 4 Duke vs. No. 2 Kentucky, the basketball Vols didn’t want to be the talk of college basketball on night No. 1.
From a Tennessee perspective, thankfully that did not happen.
Tennessee took care of business from the jump, and though Lenoir-Rhyne stayed in the game for the opening 10 minutes, the Vols played well from start to finish. The Bears would finish 7-of-35 from the 3-point line on the evening, but their 6-of-10 start allowed them to stay within striking distance. Once they cooled down from three, Tennessee finished the game on a 66-23 run.
Led by Yves Pons on defense and Jordan Bone on offense, Tennessee took care of business on both ends of the floor. The Vols shot 56.7 percent from the field on the night, while forcing Lenoir-Rhyne into 17 turnovers. Tennessee added 10 blocks as a team.
“I thought our rotational guys were really, really good,” Barnes said. “There were some really good things for us.”
Aggressive Bone is the Best Bone
Bone was a game-changer for Tennessee on both ends of the floor Tuesday night, but specifically on offense.
On 8-of-12 shooting from the field, Bone scored 18 points. The junior point guard added six rebounds, three assists, and two steals as well. To put the icing on the cake, in 26 minutes of play, Bone turned the basketball over just one time.
“With his poise on the offensive end, he had a command about him,” Barnes said of Bone. “He is surer of what we are looking for and I think he is more aware of trying to get guys going. I think he realizes when a guy like John Fulkerson is working hard, and he was trying to get it to him to try to reward him on the offensive end. Those are the things he never really thought to do and now he is starting to. He just has to continue to get better in those areas.”
Through two games, Bone has been noticeably more aggressive on both ends of the floor. The Nashville native is diving on the floor for loose balls, making no-look bounce passes to teammates on the break, and shooting the ball with confidence. But most importantly, Bone has command of the offense like a junior point guard should.
“This is definitely the year that I can easily say that I get what’s going on,” Bone said. “I am very comfortable out there. I just feel like I have to focus more on both sides of the court. It will make me a better player as well as make the team better.”
It may be a small sample size, but Bone’s confidence bodes well for Tennessee’s chances of living up to the hype this season. The Vols are a completely different basketball team when Bone is aggressive, and its something Barnes and this coaching staff has been preaching to him since he arrived. It appears that it’s finally paying off.
Following the Tusculum exhibition, Barnes’ biggest gripe with his team was Grant Williams’ rebounding effort and how they performed in the second half following a dominating performance in the first half.
Against Lenoir-Rhyne, Tennessee was locked in from the opening tip to the final buzzer. But the Vols’ performance on the boards didn’t go as smoothly. At the half, Tennessee was losing the rebounding battle 21-18. Following a pep talk from Barnes at halftime, the Vols out-rebounded the Bears 31-19 in the second half.
Williams has been on the receiving end of Barnes’ rebounding rants many times. Such was the case once again on Tuesday after Williams grabbed just one rebound in the first half. He ended up pulling down eight in the second half, but like Barnes continues to say, rebounding is the area of Williams’ game that he’ll be judged on the most. There’s no excuse for having just one rebound in a half.
“If you ask me what I think it is, I think it’s a want to,” Barnes said of Williams’ rebounding. “He has the ability to do it, but I think his thoughts are in other areas. To be the player that he wants to be, that has to be his number one area of ‘I’m going to do this.'”
Yves Pons’ athleticism was on full display Tuesday night. It was as if he was auditioning for the Harlem Globetrotters, who come to town in a couple of weeks.
Pons’ athleticism is a difference-maker for this Tennessee basketball team, something the Vols have been missing within their program for quite some time. He energizes both ends of the floor and did so against Lenoir-Rhyne with two SportsCenter-esque blocks and a dunk in which he put a Bears’ player on a poster.
“He showed his athletic ability, and on defense he’s a guy that is getting better and better with that,” Barnes said of Pons. “We think he can be a difference maker. We like him guarding guards. We like putting him out there and letting him guard the point guard a little bit. His blocks were spectacular.”
On the night, Pons finished with five points, four rebounds, two blocks, and a steal.
“He is a solider,” Kyle Alexander said of Pons. “That was just a little taste of it tonight. With that put-back dunk, he is just so relentless and goes to the glass every day in practice.”
No Turner or Johnson
Tennessee was without two of its key rotational players on Tuesday.
According to the Vols, junior guard Lamonte Turner missed the game due to a shoulder injury and sophomore forward Jalen Johnson didn’t play due to a hamstring injury. Barnes confirmed the injuries following the game.
“I think they’ll both be ready Friday,” Barnes said following the game. “Jalen tweaked his (knee) a little bit in practice last Friday or Saturday.”