No. 10 Tennessee turned in an elite defensive performance on Tuesday night inside of Thompson-Boling Arena, defeating Appalachian State 79-38.
The Vols (3-0) were led by four players who scored double figures. Victor Bailey Jr. led the team with 13 points, while Jaden Springer and John Fulkerson each scored 12 points apiece, respectively. Josiah-Jordan James chipped in 11 points on 3-of-3 shooting from behind the 3-point line as UT shot 49% from the field and was 6-of-18 from three.
Here’s a look at the three biggest observations from Tennessee’s third win of the season:
Elite defensive performance .. again
Defense led the way for Tennessee to begin the season in wins over Colorado and Cincinnati. It did so once again versus Appalachian State, holding the Mountaineers to 38 points, which is the fewest points allowed by the Vols under Rick Barnes.
Tennessee had 13 steals in the midst of forcing 18 Mountaineer turnovers. The 13 steals tied the most the Vols have had under Barnes.
“I don’t know if I would say I’m surprised,” Barnes said following the game when asked if he’s been surprised by how good Tennessee’s defense has been through three games. “I think these guys have great respect for each other. I think they have great respect for each other’s work ethic. I think they know that we keep talking about the leadership, where they expect it.
“There are a lot of guys that are capable of doing things. We keep talking about are those guys who are willing to do it all the time? Who is really going to go play hard. And if you don’t, you should understand we’re going to give someone else a chance.”
Appalachian State shot 28% from the field and rarely got off a clean shot. From three, the Mountaineers were 5-of-21, shooting 24%. Tennessee only allowed 13 first half points.
“Defensively, obviously it’s something that we’ve always tried to emphasize,” Barnes said. “They know, that if they don’t give us the effort we need there that that’s probably the quickest way they’ll get subbed out, maybe before they want to come out.”
James’ improved three-point shooting
The forgotten name amongst Tennessee’s new-look group of guards is sophomore Josiah-Jordan James. All the talk has been about Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer, Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey Jr. has generated the most talk, and rightfully so, but James has been just as good if not better.
James scored 11 points against Appalachian State and did so on 3-of-3 shooting from behind the 3-point line. He nearly recorded a double-double with eight rebounds, five of which were on the offensive glass. He also had two assists and a block, while just committing two fouls and turning it over once.
“He’s worked very hard,” Barnes said of James. “Josiah is a really hard worker. He’s worked hard in a lot of different areas.
“Josiah has worked really hard on his shot, he really has. I’ll go back, prior to us having to shut down the last time with the COVID, the numbers that we stat, everything we do in practice, both he, VJ (Bailey), Yves (Pons) and Santi (Vescovi), their percentages were all over 40 percent. Even though we hadn’t shot it well in the games, we have confidence we’re going to do that because we watch them do it over months at a time. I thought tonight he was comfortable.”
Tennessee also tried something new with James on Tuesday night. It played him at the four.
“We closed the game with him at the four,” Barnes said. “That’s something we’ve talked about with that lineup, with him being there because we love his versatility. We think he can play a lot of different places. He’s arguably our best rebounder right now, if you think about it, the way he goes after it. He almost had a double-double tonight. He probably could have if he got a few more minutes.”
Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember played for the first time against Appalachian State. The sophomore duo had not played in the first two games of the season. Against the Mountaineers, Gaines played eight minutes, while Pember played three minutes, respectively. Uros Plavsic also saw an uptick in minutes.
“I appreciate those guys,” Barnes said. “They work. Great teammates. They come in every day. They are going to play hard and they got minutes. They did. But early in the year, we are still trying to figure out some things to get a rotation down that we feel like we have to get it.
“I think their teammates — I think you can tell by the response of their teammates how much and how well they are respected. They want to see them go in and do well. I thought those guys that haven’t played and tonight being the first time handled themselves well. Just again trying to do the things we practice. That is what we talk about. Do the things we practice and respect the game and we will be okay.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to in-state foe Tennessee Tech. The Vols will host the Golden Eagles on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET.