No. 10 Tennessee has four games left to solidify a rotation before SEC play begins at the end of the month.
The four-game stretch begins with a meeting against Appalachian State on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee has picked up a pair of nine-point wins over Colorado and Cincinnati to open the season.
“These minutes are going to be very important, and the guys have to understand that it’s about us getting better and having great respect for our opponent,” head coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “But those minutes aren’t going to be given to anybody. They’re going to be minutes that are earned starting in practice.”
The early-season starting lineup has been established through two games. Barnes has always placed an emphasis on veteran leadership — it has been no different to open the 2020-21 campaign.
Senior forwards Yves Pons and John Fulkerson are both playing close to 30 minutes per game, while Victor Bailey Jr., Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James are playing the bulk of the minutes in the backcourt.
Fulkerson leads a struggling offense with 13 points per game. The Vols currently have an effective field goal percentage of 37.9, which is No. 308 in the country.
“My biggest problem is guys turning down good shots and then having to settle for one that’s not as good,” Barnes said. “That’s what we’ve talked about. When we’re open, we want to shoot the ball.”
Some shooting woes at this stage in the season are not entirely surprising, especially considering the COVID-19 layoff that spanned two weeks. Tennessee faced zone defense against both Colorado and Cincinnati, which is not something it had prepared for.
Appalachian State, Tennessee’s next opponent, likes to employ a zone defense at times.
“The last two games we’ve had to go up against zone more than we probably thought,” Barnes said. “Certainly in the first game. We’ve spent some time with it today because Appalachian State will do a little three-quarter court 1-2-2 press back to a 2-3 zone. We expect to see that and we just got to continue to work our zone offense.”
Tennessee’s defense has been the reason it has picked up a pair of wins over solid teams. The Vols are currently No. 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They are holding teams to an effective field goal percentage of 42.0.
“I think our defensive effort has been good,” Barnes said. “We’ve played two really good basketball teams who do some really good schemes, and they’ve got players. We know, because it’s no different than what we’ve done in the past. We play defense initially the way we should, and we lock in with our scouting report.”
Appalachian State ranks No. 210 in adjusted offensive efficiency. The team’s top scorer has been guard Adrian Delph, who tied his career-high with 21 points in a win over Charlotte last week.
Justin Forrest, who was a preseason first team all-Sun Belt selection, left the game against Charlotte with an injury. He fell headfirst and did not play in the second half. Forrest averaged 17.3 points last season and his status for Tuesday’s game is unclear.
Sophomore forward Kendall Lewis is scoring 11.8 points and is grabbing a team-best 5.4 rebounds per game. The Mountaineers come into this game with a 4-1 record and are led by second-year head coach Dustin Kerns.
“They (Appalachian State) had a really nice win the other night at Charlotte,” Barnes said. “They’re a really well-coached team…I love their offense. They open it up. Sometimes they’ll have a five-out type of spread with a motion offense where they like to play off the elbows.”
Tuesday’s game will begin at 7:00 p.m. ET on SEC Network.