One of Tennessee’s biggest problems in men’s basketball this season has been a lack of a post presence both on offense and defense. That stands to change moving forward, however.
On Tuesday, Tennessee announced that the NCAA finally cleared seven-foot Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic to play for the Vols this season, and the redshirt freshman can take the court as soon as the Vols’ next game on Wednesday night against Georgia. Plavsic’s addition to the roster comes at the midway point of the season, but it’s better late than never for a UT team that needs all the help they can get to make it back to the NCAA Tournament this season.
This season, the Vols have primarily been playing three different players in the post, with freshman Drew Pember starting to see more action as of late. Junior forward John Fulkerson (6-foot-9) has been UT’s primary post scorer and defender in the paint, starting all 15 games and averaging career-highs in minutes a game (28.9), points per game (11.4), and rebounds per game (5.4). Fulkerson’s primary relief has come in the form of true freshman Olivier Nkamhoua (6-foot-8), who is averaging 14.5 minutes, 4.3 points, and 4.1 rebounds in 15 games.
Other than those two, Tennessee has either gone with a small ball lineup or had to try and play freshman Drew Pember in the post, a spot he’s not quite equipped to play yet.
Pember is 6-foot-9, but he’s barely 200 pounds and doesn’t have the muscle mass to bang around with bigger posts regularly just yet. Even still, Pember saw extended minutes against Wisconsin and South Carolina, playing nine minutes against the Badgers and 10 minutes against the Gamecocks. Against South Carolina, Pember put those minutes to good use, scoring five points and nabbing two rebounds.
But Pember hasn’t played a great deal, and he won’t be relied on to provide the kind of post presence Tennessee needs.
Junior wing/forward Yves Pons (6-foot-6) has played as an undersized four for most of the season, but he’s even played at the five in small ball lineups. Pons has the athleticism and leaping ability to help him guard post players several inches taller than him, but that’s still not an ideal spot for him to play when he could be better utilized guarding more dynamic small forwards or wings.
The seven-foot Plavsic, if nothing else, gives the Vols a legitimate option to stop teams from dominating the paint against Tennessee.
In the Vols’ last four games, they’ve been outscored 98-66 in the paint. Tennessee has failed to eclipse the 20-point mark in the paint in their last four games, and teams have been able to take advantage of UT’s lack of an interior presence.
Plavsic is not only a big body, but he moves well and is an athletic seven-foot center. He has a good mid-range game on offense and can attack the rim in ways that none of Tennessee’s current post players really do. Defensively, though, is where his presence might be felt the most early on in his debut season with the Vols. Even if he doesn’t provide a huge boost to Tennessee offensively — which they desperately need right now — his defensive ability will prove to be valuable.
Figuring out how to get Plavsic on the floor and who to bench in favor of him will be the difficult decision, though.
As mentioned above, Fulkerson is averaging nearly 30 minutes a game and has started all 15 games UT has played this season. Yves Pons has also started all 15 games, and he’s averaging 32.3 minutes a game, the second-most on the team among the current active players.
The only time Tennessee has altered their starting lineup all season has been because of injury. Lamonte Turner started the first 11 games at point guard, but he decided to have season-ending shoulder surgery after the Vols’ 75-53 win over Jacksonville State on December 21st. In UT’s next game against Wisconsin, freshman Davonte Gaines earned his first-career start. After that, four-star point guard Santiago Vescovi joined the team and was immediately given starting duties, and he’s started the last three games for the Vols.
Given Barnes’ affinity for defense, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Plavsic take Vescovi’s starting spot away from him and freshman Josiah-Jordan James start out as the Vols’ primary ball handler. Or maybe Plavsic takes Fulkerson’s starting spot. Or maybe Plavsic just relieves Fulkerson off the bench.
Unlike Vescovi, Plavsic has been with Tennessee’s team since the preseason. He’s been practicing with the team even while not eligible, so he knows UT’s offense and defense. He’s been able to develop a chemistry with his teammates in practice, and while that chemistry is different in games, it certainly helps that he’s been able to be around the team the last few months.
Barnes started Vescovi because he absolutely had to and because Vescovi showed a ton of promise in the one week of practice leading up to Tennessee’s SEC opener. Barnes may elect to ease Plavsic into the lineup and not start him, but it could also benefit Vescovi to sit for the first few minutes of the game to pick up on the flow of it.
Vescovi’s two biggest issues have been turnovers and his defense. The freshman point guard leads the Vols in assists since taking over as point guard three games ago, but he also leads the team in turnovers, giving the ball away 21 times in three games. Defensively, he’s been slow to react and has had some trouble adjusting to the speed of the SEC. He currently has the second-lowest “defensive win shares” total on the team — an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense. Vescovi also has the third-lowest defensive plus/minus of the active scholarship players on UT’s roster.
Sitting Vescovi for the first four or five minutes of the game might work for him, or Barnes could wait to bring Plavsic off the bench instead of starting him. Vescovi has been UT’s most consistent source of offense lately, so benching him to start might not work, or maybe he can be a “microwave” type of player and provide instant offense off the bench.
Truthfully, the Vols’ rotation might depend game-to-game depending on the roster makeup of Tennessee’s opponent. But Plavsic still figures to be a key piece in UT’s rotation moving forward.
Even if it’s just 15-20 minutes a game, Plavsic will see the floor, and his addition couldn’t have come at a better time for the Vols. Figuring out how to work him in and who to bench will be difficult, but that’s why Rick Barnes is paid the big bucks.
Tennessee and Georgia tip-off at 7:00 PM Eastern on Wednesday in Athens, Georgia. Plavsic figures to see his first game action of the season in the contest.