No. 12 Tennessee improved to 2-0 on the young season Saturday afternoon with a 65-56 win over the Cincinnati Bearcats inside of Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols were led by John Fulkerson, who recorded a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Freshman guard Jaden Springer was the only other Vol to reach double-figures, as he chipped in 11 points.
Tennessee hung its hat on the defensive end while the offense struggled for much of the game. Here’s a look at the five biggest observations from the Vols’ win over the Bearcats:
Defense leads the way
Tennessee’s offense struggled for much of Saturday’s game against Cincinatti. The Vols shot 32% from the field and only made two of the 12 three-pointers they attempted. But while the offense struggled, the effort and energy on the defensive end carried the Vols to victory.
“Tonight proves that on nights when we don’t shoot it, we still have a chance to win if we play that kind of defense without fouling, are aggressive getting to the free-throw line and those type of things,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “Two games in a row, coming down the stretch we have defended very well, and on the other end, we’ve executed and played through the person we need to play through. We’ve made some good plays there and gotten it to the right people at the end of the game that are going to get fouled.”
The Vols held Cincinatti to 38% shooting for the game and 29% shooting from three. Tennessee forced 17 Bearcat turnovers that led to 14 points off of turnovers. Bearcats star guard Keith Williams was held to six points as he sat on the bench for most of the game in foul trouble.
A big reason the Vols only shot 32% from the field is because they missed several bunnies throughout the game. Barnes isn’t worried about missing bunnies, however, as he’s confident his team will make those shots as they continue to knock the rust off after the program was shutdown for two weeks due to a COVID outbreak.
“The fact is, we cannot turn down open shots,” Barnes said. “These guys spend too much time in the open gym working on shooting to be hesitant, but some of that I think you have to give credit to Colorado and Cincinnati because they have gone zone against us, and because of the stops and starts, we’ve spent a total of maybe 15 minutes working against a 1-3-1. We spent more time prior to our stoppage against a 2-3, and the other night we had looks at the basket, but we were maybe not in the space we wanted.
“We’re going to make them, but again, it shows that we don’t have to shoot well to win basketball games because we’ve won two games against two really good basketball teams and not had great shooting nights.”
Tennessee struggled to make the easy ones, but the Vols did take advantage of the free ones. Cincinnati couldn’t defend without fouling and as a result, sent UT to the free throw line 30 times. The Bearcats attempted just seven free throws on the afternoon.
“I think our guys understand what we’re trying to do at the end of the game, in the last two games,” Barnes said. “We were able to make the free throws.”
Tennessee only missed five of the 30 free throw attempts, shooting 83% from the field. Josiah-Jordan James, Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer and John Fulkerson all attempted at least six free throws. Fulkerson was 7-of-8 from the charity stripe, while James was 6-for-6, respectively.
Tennessee wins the battle on the glass
Barnes was not pleased with how his team rebounded the basketball following the season-opening win over Colorado on Tuesday night. The Vols were out-rebounded and Barnes pointed out following the game that if Tennessee was going to turn out to be the team it wanted to be, it was going to have to rebound the basketball better.
It did just that against Cincinnati, as Tennessee out-rebounded the Bearcats 45-34. 14 of those rebounds were on the offensive glass that led to eight second-chance points.
“We want our team to have an identity of rebounding,” Barnes said. “That means getting a good shot up on the glass and going to get it. Trying to get multiple shots at it.”
Barnes relies on the true freshmen
Tennessee’s two freshmen five-star guards haven’t started either of the first two games of the season. That hasn’t stopped Johnson and Springer from playing when it matters most, however. With the game on the line down the stretch, Barnes had both of his freshmen guards in the game alongside Santiago Vescovi, Yves Pons and Fulkerson.
“We didn’t want to put them in a situation right off the bat where we could lose them confidence wise,” Barnes said. “But as a coaching staff, we’re still trying to fight through this ourselves without an exhibition game
“I think one of the key positions is that sixth and seventh guy coming off the bench. That first-line perimeter guy coming in and that first-line on the front line (in the post), that first sub, the sixth and seventh guys are really important, that they come in and take it to another level. Not maintain it, but see if they can take it to another level.”
Springer finished the game with 11 points, while Johnson finished with seven. Johnson added six rebounds, while Springer had four boards, an assist and a steal, respectively.
Tennessee will be back in action on Tuesday night against Appalachian State at 7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.