Tuesday night’s win over a young Georgia Tech team didn’t necessarily go as planned for No. 5 Tennessee.
The Vols (3-0) picked up the win by double-digits, but the game was not pretty on the eyes. It wasn’t necessarily either team’s fault either. The refs in charge of the contest – Doug Shows, Joe Lindsay, and Lee Cassell – called 49 fouls in 40 minutes of action.
There weren’t actually 49 fouls during the game, and as a result, the quick whistle prevented either team from finding a rhythm on offense. On the night, Georgia Tech (1-1) shot 27.6 percent from the field while Tennessee shot 39.6 percent.
“I didn’t think our offensive execution was very good, other than the fact we were getting fouled,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said following the game. “It made it tougher to move, and guys started holding the ball. But when you look at what we did defensively, sometimes you just have to find a way to grind it out defensively, and that’s what we did tonight.”
Both teams shot a poor clip from the field, the refs called over a foul per minute, and both teams had long possessions deep into the shot clock. But Tuesday night’s war is exactly what Tennessee needed.
Last year, the Vols were picked to finish 13th in the SEC and played with that chip on their shoulder the entire season. Tennessee was on the hunt every single night, trying to prove its worth. This year, they were picked by some to make the Final Four, putting a huge target on their back.
The Vols are now the hunted, rather than the team on the hunt, and that’s something they’re going to have to get used to.
“It will make us better if we embrace it,” Barnes said. “I told them at halftime, ‘You guys don’t think that people will give you those Herculean type efforts, now, you’ll find out.’”
That’s exactly what Barnes’ experienced team found out on Tuesday, and they will continue to find that out this season.
Georgia Tech baited Tennessee into a war and hung tough despite losing by double-digits. The Yellow Jackets forced the Vols into bad situations on offense, forced some turnovers, and muddied the game.
“I give Georgia Tech credit,” Barnes stated. “I thought that Josh Pastner had his team well-prepared. It’s quite obvious that their mindset was to make it really difficult for us to score around the basket.”
Aside from Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams combining to shoot 9-of-14 from the field, all of Tennessee’s impact players had rough shooting nights. Admiral Schofield was 3-of-13, Jordan Bone was 5-of-11, and Jordan Bowden was 1-of-6 on the night.
Along with the starters, Barnes’ bench didn’t provide any other scoring options. John Fulkerson played well in 16 minutes, affecting the game in other ways. But he was just 0-of-2 from the field. The only other two bench players to see the court were Jalen Johnson and Yves Pons, who combined to go 1-for-2.
Georgia Tech’s bench out-scored Tennessee’s bench 34-4 on the night. As Barnes said following the game, it was the first time this season Tennessee truly missed Lamonte Turner.
“He (Turner) is a very integral part of this team,” Barnes said. “Out of all these games, this is the one that he would’ve impacted more than any because we needed that third scorer tonight.”
Turner has missed all three of Tennessee’s regular season games but did play in the exhibition against Tusculum on Halloween. The redshirt junior had shoulder surgery over the summer and was thought to have been good to go for the beginning of the season. After irritating it in practice, the Vols aren’t willing to rush him back because what is most important is having him back for conference play and beyond.
“The biggest thing is he wants to get healthy,” Barnes said. “We want him to be healthy. He certainly has done all that he can do to rehab it and get it back. I do think he wants to come back. We need him. There is no doubt.”
Luckily for Tennessee, they aren’t back in action for another week, giving Turner plenty of time off before the Vols’ non-conference schedule really gears up. They’ll be in Brooklyn next Wednesday to take on a young Louisville program that Chris Mack has taken over. Win or lose, they’ll face No. 2 Kansas or Marquette for their next game.
Barnes expects Turner to return for those marquee match-ups.
“I do think he will be ready in New York,” Barnes said. “That has been the timetable pretty much. These next couple will be important for him to get his wind back and play in shape.”
That’s good news for the Vols, because if they’re going to live up to the hype this season, they’re going to need Turner’s scoring and leadership. He may have won the SEC Sixth Man of the Year last season, but he plays more minutes than some starters do and is on the floor at the end of games.
Without Turner, it’ll be hard for Tennessee to deal with the Herculean type efforts it’ll face all season long as opponents attempt to overtake the Vols’ thrown.