Notes from the Summitt: Both Vol Basketball Programs on the Rise

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    Vol Hoops Notebook

    Photo by Caitlyn Jordan/RTI

    Tennessee men’s basketball team is coming off of an impressive outing in Kansas over the weekend, though it fell to the third-ranked Jayhawks 74-68.

    The Vols were nearly two-touchdown underdogs despite suspensions being levied to two Kansas players following a brawl with Kansas State last Tuesday night. Still, the Vols hung tough.

    Yves Pons played the best game of his career, as he scored 24 points, grabbed seven rebounds. and blocked three shots. John Fulkerson continued his hot streak, recording a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Jordan Bowden broke out of what feels like a season-long slump with 19 points, all coming in the second half.

    Tennessee continues to improve as a team. The Vols have won four out of their last six games and four of their last five conference games. At 12-7 and 4-2 in conference play, they’re tied for third in the SEC standings. With three games coming up against SEC teams with conference records at .500 or better, the question that looms is if the Vols can continue to improve and consistently put together good performances.

    “We did play well, but what we’re trying to get these guys to understand is that if you get four more stops on the defensive end, you can win the game,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said during a press conference on Monday. “What you take from that game is, we could have won that game, but we didn’t because we’re not there yet in terms of taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. There’s so many close possessions that you can say this play or that play, but what I do appreciate is how our older guys handled the environment.

    “They handled it well, which I thought they would, and the younger guys didn’t. It’s just that we felt going into it that if we did what we’re capable of doing, then we could win, and we still feel that way.”

    Josiah’s Bad Outing

    Freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James turned in his worst game of the season against the Jayhawks. James grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists, but he was 0-for-6 shooting from the field and didn’t score a single point. He turned it over six times and left a lot to be desired on the defensive end.

    “He wasn’t very good on either end of the floor,” Barnes said. “I don’t know what it was. We felt like he had really made strides, but he just wasn’t locked in at either end at all. He played poorly, and he knows it.”

    Barnes acknowledged a lot of what Tennessee is going through is new to the youngsters, but he also believes that at this point in the season, they can’t be going backwards.

    “I had thought we were past that stage with these guys, that they would understand that you have to keep moving forward,” Barnes said. “Because this is the time of year where everybody gets separated. If you want to be a team that’s playing late in the year, then you better realize it’s about moving forward and getting better and not going backwards after you have learned some valuable lessons through losses.”

    Sin pérdidas de balón

    Barnes didn’t have much to pick on in regards to his other true freshman point guard following the trip to Kansas. For the first time since stepping foot on campus in late December, Santiago Vescovi did not turn the basketball over in a game.

    Vescovi was averaging 6.0 turnovers per game before Saturday’s contest, but he ran the offense well during his 32 minutes of action against the Jayhawks. He scored nine points as he was 4-for-9 from the field, and he tallied five rebounds, three assists, and a steal.

    “He’s (Vescovi) a guy that is starting to understand our system and that when he makes mistakes on the defensive end, he knows it,” Barnes said. “In the past, he didn’t, but he knew it on Saturday.

    “He’s starting to understand where he’s breaking down on the defensive end, which is a good thing. Then, offensively, we think he’s getting more comfortable, but he’ll have to continue to prove that because people are going to continue to challenge him.”

    Kansas head coach Bill Self raved about Vescovi following the game, claiming that Vescovi was going to be a terrific player.

    Honoring Kobe Bryant

    The basketball community and the sports world lost an icon on Sunday afternoon when Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant passed away at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash.

    When Barnes first laid eyes on Bryant, it was while Barnes was coaching at Farliegh Dickenson, and Bryant was playing at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Barnes was watching one high school game, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off of Bryant, who was playing on a different court.

    “He was without question the best high school player I’ve ever watched since I’ve been in coaching,” Barnes said. “Everything he did back then he just took to a different level. If you go back and look at the way he went about things, it’s incredible. Everybody knows about his training and everything.”

    Barnes was at the funeral of his brother-in-law when Bryant passed away on Sunday. Tennessee’s assistant coaches were with the team, and when they informed the players of the tragedy, the players began to cry.

    “Our guys want to wear purple shoe laces tomorrow night (against Texas A&M), which shows the impact a guy like Kobe Bryant can have,” Barnes said. “Kobe is certainly one of the greatest players ever, but it’s the way he did things. He did everything that a coach would want.”

    Scouting Texas A&M

    Tennessee turns its attention to a home game with Texas A&M before hitting the road for back-to-back road games against Mississippi State on Saturday and Alabama next Tuesday.

    The Aggies (9-9, 3-3 SEC) are in year one under former Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams. Like Tennessee, A&M is coming off of a loss in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Aggies lost to Oklahoma State 73-62 at home.

    “They (Texas A&M) are very similar to where we (Tennessee) are this year,” Barnes said. “The teams we’ve beaten in the league are pretty much the same teams they’ve beaten.

    “They have gotten better since the non-league ended. They are moving in the right direction.”

    Texas A&M is led by senior forward Josh Nebo. On the year, Nebo is leading the Aggies in scoring at 12.5 points per game and in rebounding at 7.1 rebounds. His team-leading 2.5 blocks per game is second-most in the conference behind Pons’ 2.7 blocks.

    Junior guard Savion Flagg is the Aggies’ second-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game. His 2.5 assists per game lead the team, while his 1.1 steals per game are second-best.

    In conference play, Texas A&M has beaten Missouri, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt. The Aggies have lost to South Carolina, LSU, and Arkansas.

    “I think Buzz (Williams) is doing a good job with his program,” Barnes said. “They run a lot of sets. They use a press like we’ve been using. When you look at where they started and where they are now, they got to believe they are in the mix with everybody else.”

    A win for Tennessee would extend UT’s home winning streak to three games, and it would give the Vols a three-game winning streak in the SEC.

    A Small Taste of Spring Water

    The Jaden Springer Show was in full effect over the weekend. Tennessee’s five-star guard signee made his way to Knoxville with his IMG Academy teammates on Saturday to take on Knoxville Catholic. Springer received a standing ovation when announced by the PA Announcer.

    Springer impressed with 13 points and nine assists as he led IMG to a 68-53 win over Catholic. He met with the media following the game to discuss the experience.

    Bracketology

    ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently does not have Tennessee making the NCAA Tournament field, but he does have UT in his “Next Four Out.”

    CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm also does not have Tennessee making the field of 64. He does have the Vols in his “first four out,” however.

    Baller Vols Mailbag

    Now, let’s get to some fan questions about Tennessee’s men’s basketball team.

    “Are we capable of competing with ‘run and gun’ teams? I watch teams like Alabama and Auburn and idk if we can keep up with that pace of basketball.” — @BuckToTheNasty1

    This is a great question, Buck. The first answer that comes to mind is no, I don’t think it’s advantageous for Tennessee to get out and run. At times this season, when Tennessee’s offense was struggling in the half court, I wanted to see them get out and run.

    The Vols made a conscious effort to get out and run in the second half against Vanderbilt, and it paid off. Tennessee scored 45 points after scoring just 21 in the first half. But now that the Vols seemingly feel more confident in the half court, and both John Fulkerson and Yves Pons are playing terrific basketball on the offensive end, it’s probably best to slow it down. Plus, Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are really starting to settle in and understand how to run the offense.

    Fulkerson and Pons are mismatches in the post. No need to get out and run, which would take those two away from doing what they do best. Plus, Tennessee’s transition defense has been atrocious at times this season. No need to get out and run with teams that are going to shoot a ton of threes. That isn’t Tennessee’s game.

    “Is Tennessee still planning to add 1 more player to this recruiting class?” — Jeff Huffman

    I believe so, though I don’t necessarily think Tennessee knows which direction it wants to go in. It signed four players this past fall, three of which are guards. On top of bringing in Vescovi, Springer, and Keon Johnson, the Vols will have Josiah-Jordan James and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey as guards as well next season.

    If Tennessee adds one more to the roster, you have to imagine it’ll be a post player or wing. More specifically, it could be a grad transfer who has played at this level in the post, or it could be a wing who can shoot it very well from the perimeter.

    “If we could land just one of Banchero/Chandler (assuming their package deal plan isn’t written in stone), which would be more valuable?” — Chris L.

    Kennedy Chandler is going to be very good, but Paolo Banchero is being mentioned in the same breath as Kevin Durant. Personally, Banchero would be more valuable. He’s the No. 3 overall player in the class for a reason.

    His game fits perfectly with the new-age basketball that is being played. Banchero can play in the post, he can take defenders off the dribble, he can pass, and he can rebound. The 6-foot-9 power forward is going to be a star wherever he lands. Tennessee likes its chances with Kim English serving as his lead recruiter.

    “With 12 games left in the regular season, how many do you think the Vols men’s basketball team needs to win to make the NCAA tournament?” — Jeffrey Martin

    Probably 20. Tennessee already has 12 wins, and with 12 games remaining, the Vols have some work to do. Unfortunately, the back-half of the conference schedule is very tough. Are they capable of making the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely. But if they want to feel comfortable, the Vols have some work to do.

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