Vol Hoops Notebook
Tennessee went to Kansas a little over two weeks ago and turned in an impressive performance despite losing. With positive vibes surrounding the team, the Vols proceeded to turn in back-to-back embarrassing performances against Texas A&M and Mississippi State. The losses to the Aggies and Bulldogs felt like the nail in the coffin of Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
Even with hopes of making a trip to the big dance seemingly dissipated, the Vols bounced back from the rough week of basketball with a gutsy week of basketball. It started in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday night with the Vols defeating the Crimson Tide 69-68 in comeback fashion.
Led by a career-high 22 points from John Fulkerson, 16 second half points from Jordan Bowden, and an insane stat line from Yves Pons, the Vols erased a 15-point deficit to snap their three-game losing streak.
Pons Comes Up Clutch
Along with a season-high three blocks, Fulkerson scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half, while Bowden picked up a career-high six steals as he poured in 20 points. Pons scored 12 points, but he impacted the game more than any Vol. The junior forward pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds, eight of which came on the offensive glass. Pons also had three key blocks.
“I love the guy,” Rick Barnes said of Pons following the win. “I don’t know if there is anyone in the country that works harder than him.”
None of Pons’ blocks were more critical than the blocked shot he had with seconds remaining to preserve Tennessee’s two-point lead. After being fouled, Pons then marched down to the other side of the court and sank both free throws to give the Vols a four-point lead and put the game away.
“You know what I told him?” Barnes said. “I kept telling him all night, I said ‘hey man, trust your work. Just trust yourself. You go up to the line, you spend as much time as anybody in the country on shooting free throw, just trust it.’ And I thought he did.
“He missed two early that weren’t close, and I can’t tell you why. But the block and that stuff, we’ve seen those plays. But on the offensive end, that’s all I kept saying. Trust your work. And he knocked them down.”
Tennessee’s offensive performance wasn’t nearly as good against No. 15 Kentucky on Saturday, as it was in the second half against Alabama. In the 77-64 loss to the Wildcats, the Vols shot 34.5 percent from the field and 26.9 percent from three. Their bench was out-scored 17-3, and outside of Fulkerson, Bowden, Santiago Vescovi, and Pons, only five other points were scored from the remaining Vols on the roster.
Vescovi led the Vols, scoring a team-high 18 points, which also tied his career-high. Bowden and Fulkerson both chipped in 16 points each, while Bowden also pulled down a team-high nine rebounds.
Kentucky led 37-30 at halftime despite an 11-0 run that the Vols were able to recover from. Tennessee was able to cut the Wildcat lead down to four at one point, but the out-manned Vols were simply unable to overcome Kentucky’s talent. Each time the Vols would get close, Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley would hit a big shot to end the momentum.
“In the first half, we did what we wanted to do by trying to get their front line in some foul trouble,” Barnes said following the loss. “We just couldn’t stop them in some late game situations when I thought we defended them pretty well.
“I thought our guys fought. I really do, and I appreciate their effort.”
Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks proved to be the difference in the game. The former top recruits who have struggled this season for the Cats were forced into action as Kentucky battled foul trouble. The duo combined to play 50 minutes, score 17 points, and grab 10 rebounds off the bench.
Uros Struggling to Find Role
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic since being ruled eligible by the NCAA after having to sit out the first half of the season.
In eight games this season, the freshman forward is averaging 4.3 points per game and 1.4 rebounds. Plavsic has only scored more than five points once this season, when he scored a season-high 16 points against Mississippi State. On the glass, he’s recorded more than one rebound just three times.
“Uros has to be more physical,” Barnes said following the Kentucky game “A guy that size, he can’t be a finesse player. He can’t be a finesse player. But he’s a freshman, he’s learning this.”
Against the Wildcats, Plavsic started and played just 11 minutes. He was 1-for-3 from the field for two points, and he pulled down just one rebound. Plavsic committed three fouls on the afternoon.
“The play in the second half should’ve been a dunk,” Barnes said. “I mean, if he were playing at the speed he needed to, that should’ve been an easy basket for us, opposed to (Kentucky) getting a block right there.”
Josiah-Jordan James’ Health
Nothing has changed with Tennessee freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James. After not playing against Kentucky — his third consecutive missed game due to a nagging hip/groin injury — Barnes stated during his Monday press conference prior to Tuesday night’s game against Arkansas that James was still day-to-day.
Later in the evening on Vol calls, Barnes admitted to James practicing a little bit on Monday, though still maintained that he was day-to-day.
Tennessee football landed dual-sport athletes Dee Beckwith and Malachi Wideman on Wednesday during National Signing Day. Beckwith and Wideman aren’t your typical football signees, however. Both are tremendous basketball players with multiple scholarship offers from college basketball programs, which raises the question: Will they also play basketball while at Tennessee?
“We’re all excited that they chose to be Tennessee Volunteers,” Tennessee head basketball coach Rick Barnes said on Thursday afternoon. “They have signed a football scholarship, and that will be their first priority.
“With that said, I think we’ve become pretty good at adding guys in the middle of the year. So we know how to deal with that. But their first look, they know it’s football.”
Beckwith ranks as the No. 392 overall football player in the country according to 247Sports’ 2020 composite rankings. The Florence, Alabama native is listed as an athlete, but he will begin his Tennessee career at wide receiver. Beckwith held basketball offers from Florida, Ole Miss, South Carolina, UAB, and Samford among others.
Wideman is ranked as both a top-200 football and basketball prospect on 247Sports. He ranks as the 116th-best football player and the 163rd-best basketball player. Wideman is ranked as the No. 22 overall wide receiver and the No. 32 overall shooting guard.
“I think our (football) program is on its way, where I do think that we’ll be playing in bowl games later (in the year),” Barnes said. “The fact is, we like both of them. I’m just excited they’re here.
“As they get here, they get settled in, it will be their call. Jeremy (Pruitt) and I have talked about it, and we both know it will be their call, what they think once they go through it, live it and see if they can do it.”
Even after positive performances against Alabama and Kentucky, the Vols have still lost four out of their last five games. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Tennessee, as this week the Vols will welcome Arkansas to Knoxville on Tuesday night and then head to Columbia, South Carolina for a date with the Gamecocks on Saturday night.
The Hogs have also been struggling of late despite a hot start to the year under first-year head coach Eric Musselman. Much of Arkansas’ struggles can be attributed to the loss of Isaiah Joe. The guard underwent successful right knee arthroscopic debridement surgery to his knee last Tuesday and hasn’t play since.
This season, Joe is averaging 16.0 points per game and is shooting 36 percent from the field. Joe is second on the team and seventh in the SEC in scoring. From the 3-point line, he is shooting 34.0 percent. Last Tuesday, Joe was named one of 10 finalists for the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award.
After beginning the year 12-1, the Razorbacks currently sit at 16-7 overall and 4-6 in SEC play. The Hogs are coming off back-to-back overtime losses, one coming at home against Auburn (79-76) and the other on the road at Missouri (83-79).
“I think Eric (Musselman) has done a great job coaching,” Barnes said Monday. “He really has. They’re aggressive. They drive the ball really, really hard.”
Musselman has been able to have instant success in Fayetteville because he has brought in five transfers. Jimmy Whitt Jr. — a grad transfer guard from SMU — has been instrumental for Arkansas. Whitt Jr. is averaging 14.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.3 steals.
Joining Whitt Jr. in the backcourt is Mason Jones, who leads the SEC in scoring at 20.5 points per game. Jones is also averaging 6.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 steals.
“Really, really terrific defensive team,” Barnes said. “They really get after it heavy and make plays in the gap. They really turn you over. When they do turn you over, I think they’re terrific in getting those baskets and making you pay there. So it goes back to ball security.”
Tip-off with Arkansas from Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night is slated for 7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Tennessee is currently not projected to make the NCAA Tournament according to bracketmatrix.com. The Vols could still make the Big Dance, but barring a magical run, it doesn’t feel likely.
Baller Vols Mailbag
Now, let’s get to some fan questions about Tennessee’s men’s basketball team.
“Will we even win again?” — @Mixxism1 (Triple OG Jamie)
Yes. Tennessee will beat either Arkansas or South Carolina this week. With a healthy Josiah-Jordan James, I’d feel confident in Tennessee being able to win both, but without him, the Vols probably split.
“What position do we need to fill to become truly elite again? Or is it a matter of our young talent maturing?” — @BuckToTheNasty1
To me, Tennessee has talent, it’s just a matter of young talent maturing. At least on this particular team with Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, Uros Plavsic, Davonte Gaines, Drew Pember, and Olivier Nkamhoua. This team reminds me of Rick Barnes’ team that had freshmen Grant Williams, Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone, and John Fulkerson, and sophomores Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield. That team needed time to develop into what they became, and this team needs that same time as well.
The Vols have the making of a strong team in the future, especially when you add in the talent they’re bringing in for next season.
“Will Uros ever stop playing like he is in a pillow fight and become more physical?” — Brandon Barber
Absolutely. Barnes has talked extensively over the last two weeks about Plavsic needing to be more aggressive, and part of the reason why is because Plavsic doesn’t exactly know what he is doing while on the floor. Plavsic is going to be a good player for Tennessee, but right now he’s going through freshman growing pains.
“At the beginning of the year some folks were talking about a couple of players being one and done. Do you think those players will be long term now? Do you think the plan has changed? Should they have been called one and dones to start with?” — @pizzamon1
The only player that was capable of being one-and-done was Josiah-Jordan James and yes, that plan has changed. Theoretically, James could still declare for the draft, but it doesn’t feel like it would be the best decision for him. James has had a good freshman season. He’s capable of so much more, though, and I believe he’ll return to school for at least another season.