Tennessee basketball has been overshadowed in recent days due to everything going on with the football program. But over Thanksgiving break, the then-No. 5 Vols (4-1) traveled to Brooklyn and beat Louisville 92-81 before falling to No. 2 Kansas in overtime, 87-81.
Against Kansas, Tennessee got off to a slow start on offense, missing its first six shots and 15 of its first 20. Sparked by Jordan Bone and Grant Williams, the Vols would claw back to climb to a 33-31 lead at the half, but in the second half, the offense once again went through a lull.
Midway through the second period, the Jayhawks went on a 10-0 run to build a five-point lead. Tennessee countered with an 8-0 run of its own, but once star forward Grant Williams fouled out with 1:24 remaining in regulation, the Vols struggled to close the game out.
“I thought we were way too emotional for a team that has guys back,” Rick Barnes said on Tuesday. “That was disappointing that we didn’t understand that, and we didn’t start the game with the game plan we had talked about.”
It was odd to see a team with experience seem so flustered at the beginning of a game, even if it was against the second-ranked team in the country. It’s still early in the season, but Barnes was disappointed to see his team too amped up and not concentrating on the game plan early.
“Players still get emotional,” Barnes said. “Guys get on a stage like that, and it’s easy to get caught up in what goes on around it as opposed to staying focused on the fact that we earned the right to be there, and if you wanna stay there, you have to fight to stay there.
“We told them before the game it’ll be a one-to-two possession game, and that’s kind of what it was. We didn’t execute the last minute and a half the way we needed to in regulation. Not just on the offensive end, but also on the defensive end. When they changed momentum, we had two huge defensive breakdowns that shouldn’t have happened.”
The trip to Brooklyn was still successful, even if Tennessee didn’t win both games. The Vols beat a solid Louisville squad by double-digits, and then they proved they can play with anybody in the country with their effort against Kansas. But for Barnes, his biggest takeaway from the trip will be his team’s lack of consistency for 40 minutes.
“Executing our game plan would be the biggest thing and understanding how difficult it is to do that,” Barnes said of what his team must get better at. “I think consistency in terms of our guys understanding every possession, how consistent you have to be and how fine the line it really is between winning and losing especially when you’re playing a high-caliber basketball team.
“When they saw the tape, you point out how consistent Kansas was with their game plan. And where we were consistent maybe 85 percent of the time. No, 90 percent of the time.”
Tennessee returns home on Wednesday night to take on Eastern Kentucky at 6:30 p.m. ET. In an effort to jump start the offense earlier in the game and make sure none of his starters become complacent, Barnes was thinking about starting sophomore Yves Pons depending on how Tuesday’s practice went.
“He’s (Pons) doing a lot of things that might not show up on the scouting report,” Barnes stated. “He’s a guy that defends, the way he goes to the basket, making things happen.”
Pons is averaging just 3.0 points per game in 14.6 minutes, but his impact is felt elsewhere. The sophomore has been a strong presence on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 3.4 rebounds and almost a steal and block per game.
“I don’t want anybody to get comfortable,” Barnes added. “I want them to know we’re willing to make changes up until we’re done playing. He (Pons) works. I think overall we have a group of guys that work, but he’s a guy that goes above and beyond and is one of the hardest workers we have on our team.”
As is the case with the starting lineup, the bench needs to be more consistent as well. Barnes mentioned that John Fulkerson is playing well, and Kyle Alexander was terrific against Kansas. He also said they need more out of Derrick Walker and that Jordan Bone was stellar in the way he controlled the pace of the game.
But some of the other key role players weren’t really linked in with what Tennessee was trying to do as a team.
Against Eastern Kentucky, Barnes will be looking to see if his team is locked in. Though it’s a mid-major game, Tennessee still has to focus on itself, regardless of the opponent.
“Nobody we play can help us concentrate,” Barnes said. “We have to do that by the way we prepare. We have to do that by the way we go through our reports and how we carry the scouting reports onto the court.”
Led by senior Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky is 3-3 on the season under first-year head coach A.W. Hamilton. Mayo -– who has started 99 straight games -– currently ranks second in the Ohio Valley Conference and ninth in the country in scoring at 25.0 points per game. The Colonels as a team rank 20th in the country in scoring offense, as they’re scoring 86.3 points per game.
“They play really fast,” Barnes said. “They press. They are going to get up. They want a high-possession game. They get after it.”