In several losses and even in a lot of wins this season, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team hasn’t exactly played well. That was the case again on Tuesday during the Vols’ 65-61 victory over Vanderbilt in Knoxville.
Tennessee (15-11, 7-6 SEC) fought back-and-forth for most of the night with the Commodores (9-17, 1-12) before finally starting to pull away late in the second half, grabbing a 13-point lead with 2:30 to go.
But that lead evaporated quickly, as the Vols made more sloppy plays, and Vanderbilt capitalized.
In a matter of minutes, the Commodores cut Tennessee’s lead to two points with just over six seconds remaining. Senior guard Jordan Bowden hit two clutch free throws after getting possession on the in-bounds play and getting fouled, and that was enough to put away the game for good.
After the win, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes voiced his displeasure with his team’s play. At halftime, Barnes told SEC Network’s Alyssa Lang that his team’s offense had been “pathetic” in the first half, and he said the team wasn’t “respecting the game” with some of the turnovers they were committing.
Barnes’ feelings weren’t dampened much by the Vols’ effort in the second half.
“We got going with our offense (in the second half). We were moving, we were bringing more pace to it. Then the last minute was really ridiculous,” Barnes said after the game. “I’m really upset about it. Guys knew it. I was upset at halftime with the way we started the game, with missed layups and silly turnovers. Things that, this time of year, you shouldn’t be making. Then we’re up 12, 13 and turn it over three straight times in a ridiculous manner.
“You can’t be doing that. This time of year, it’s about playing basketball and understanding that every possession matters. When we move the ball, when we bring some pace, we can score. But when you start out a game missing those little layups that we had, I think about how many we missed tonight, and I know they’re difficult, but I know (Vanderbilt guard) Saben Lee made them look pretty easy. And (he’s) much smaller. That’s the frustrating thing.”
Tennessee plays a lot of younger players, and that was the case again on Tuesday, with freshmen playing a combined 75 minutes. But Barnes’ main source of frustration wasn’t with his younger players or his bench players; aside from Jordan Bowden, Barnes was most disappointed in his veterans.
“I thought Jalen (Johnson) gave us good minutes other than that last turnover,” Barnes explained. “I thought ‘Ticket’ (Davonte Gaines) did some good things. I thought JB (Jordan Bowden) was really solid. Those two free throws are huge free throws, because (Vanderbilt) have the ability to go down and hit a three. But I’m just not real happy with John (Fulkerson) and Yves (Pons).
“The play (Pons) made there at the end of the game is just something you can’t do. Dribble the ball out, let somebody come from behind (and get the steal). You know they’re coming. He should’ve picked it up.”
On the night, Tennessee committed 15 turnovers, and the Vols’ third and fourth-year players were responsible for seven of those giveaways. Freshman Santiago Vescovi led the way with six turnovers, but both John Fulkerson and Yves Pons had multiple turnovers, and Jordan Bowden and Jalen Johnson also gave the ball away once apiece.
For as young of a team as Tennessee is, the Vols need their older players to provide leadership. Barnes hasn’t been happy with the lack of that this season, especially on Tuesday night.
“The older guys, this time of year, man, believe me, they should be the ones that are totally locked in, leading the way,” Barnes stated. “Our young guys need it.”
The best stretch of offense for the Vols against Vanderbilt came when Tennessee was moving the ball inside-out and letting the offense flow. That didn’t happen nearly enough, and it was at its worst at the end the game.
Tennessee had a seemingly commanding 61-48 lead with 2:30 to go after an Yves Pons dunk. But then a Dylan Disu three-pointer got Vanderbilt’s offense going, and aside from a John Fulkerson layup, the Commodores dominated the closing minutes, getting two three-pointers from Saben Lee, a layup from Maxwell Evans, and two free throws from Scottie Pippen Jr. to cut the lead to two points.
In that closing stretch, the Vols committed three turnovers after totaling just six in the first 17 minutes of the second half.
“When we were moving the ball, we had good offense. We had good flow at that point, when we got the lead,” Barnes said. “(Vanderbilt) missed a couple really wide-open shots, where we were fortunate. I’m just not real happy with the way we started the game and the way we finished the game.”
For Barnes, the ending of Tennessee’s last couple games have been particularly disappointing because he thinks his team is better than how the public perceives them.
Against South Carolina, the Vols blew away a late lead and lost a road contest that was easily winnable. If not for 20 turnovers and 11 missed free throws, the Vols would’ve beaten the Gamecocks for the second time this season. But UT’s mistakes cost them in that game, and South Carolina was the one celebrating a victory at the final buzzer.
On Tuesday, Vanderbilt wasn’t quite good enough to steal a victory away from the Vols. But that doesn’t make Barnes any less irritated.
“I am frustrated because I think we should be better than what other people might think,” Barnes explained. “We’re not going to lower our standard. I had Admiral Schofield and Lamonte (Turner) both talk to them after tonight because I was upset at halftime, and I was upset at the end of the game. I thought those guys hit them with some good things, and it’s important that they understand that they have to do it now.
“They are in the same situation as Admiral and those guys were when they were sophomores, and they went through it, and they found a way to break through. This team has got to find a way to break through.”
In Admrial Schofield and Lamonte Turner’s sophomore campaigns during the 2016-17 season, the Vols had improved to 14-10 after a nine-point victory over Ole Miss, giving UT their sixth win in eight games. But from that point forward, UT would stumble, dropping six of their last eight games to finish the season 16-16.
The next season, Schofield, Turner, and the rest of Tennessee’s roster used that ending to fuel their offseason and get better. The result? A 26-9 record in the 2017-18 season, a share of the regular season SEC title, and UT’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2014.
Barnes is hopeful that this Tennessee team can learn those lessons a little sooner and finish the 2019-20 season strong. The odds are stacked against them, but the veteran head coach hopes the Vols’ last two games in particular will help turn things around for his team.
“I hope it is a great learning opportunity for us, but I think we have been through a lot of learning opportunities, and I think we still are going to have a lot more,” Barnes said. “Until we do what we said, until we break through and understand truly how hard it is to play at this level night in and night out — I don’t care who you are playing — this league has proven that on any night anybody can beat anybody.”