No. 25 Tennessee struggled with consistency once again on Saturday afternoon, falling to Auburn 77-72 on the Plains. The Tigers had loss three straight games, six out of their last seven and were without their best player, Sharife Cooper.
The Vols (16-7, 9-7 SEC) had just three players reach double-figures as they shot 41% from the field and as a team and 39% from three. Keon Johnson scored a team-high 23 points on 9-for-17 shooting, while Jaden Springer scored 20 points on 6-for-14 shooting, respectively. The five-star freshmen duo combined for 60% of Tennessee’s offensive production.
All five of Auburn’s starters scored double-figures despite Cooper missing the game due to an ankle injury. Auburn (12-13, 6-10 SEC) was averaging 67.3 points and 0-4 in SEC play without Cooper entering the game. Allen Flanigan led the way with Cooper out, scoring a team-high 23 points on 7-for-14 shooting.
Here’s a look at the three biggest observations from Tennessee’s loss to Auburn:
Same song and dance
Saturday was the same old song and dance with this struggling Tennessee basketball team. Poor execution on both ends of the floor led to yet another bad loss on the resume with the NCAA Tournament right around the corner. The loss also all but eliminated the Vols from securing a double-bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament.
“We’ve got three guys that really brought energy today,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “Jaden (Springer) has been fighting a cold. But I thought he and Keon (Johnson) and Yves (Pons) both, all three of those guys, I thought did exactly what we like for them to do. Other than that, I would say not so much. Whether it’s energy or lack of confidence — when you’re not playing with confidence, I think it can drain you a little bit.”
After starting 10-1, Tennessee is 6-6 over its last 12 games, which spans nearly all of conference play. The Vols have spent many weeks splitting their two scheduled games — winning one, losing one, so on and so forth.
“I expect our team to get better and better and better as we go on,” Barnes said. “I expect the mistakes to come down, down, down. If you’ve got a problem rebounding the ball, I would expect that to be fixed in terms of what we do to try to fix it. But when the lights come on, you’ve got to go do it. Plain and simple.
“The fact is we’re not fixing the things we keep talking about. Maybe we don’t have the ability to do it, I don’t know. You start asking that question. What do we have to do? Do we have to make changes going forward in our program to do things? Because we’ve got to be able to rebound the ball better than we have been to this point. And it’s plain and simple. And we’ve got to take care of the ball better. That’s plain and simple.”
Vols lack a post game
Part of Tennessee’s issues is that it doesn’t have a post game right now. Barnes flat out said it following the game. John Fulkerson, who has struggled all season long, scored four points, turned it over four times and only had four rebounds.
It’s not just Fulkerson, however, although he’s the biggest disappointment given preseason expectations. Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Drew Pember have all failed to establish themselves as consistent post players that Barnes can rely on.
“The bottom line is right now we don’t have a post game,” Barnes said. “That’s something that we’ve always had at Tennessee. Even in my first year we found a way to get somebody that could score around the rim. We don’t have that right now consistently.
“So much of it is being put back on the freshmen. It shouldn’t be that. When we need VJ Bailey, we need Josiah James, we need Santiago (Vescovi). We need those three guys playing, and John Fulkerson, at the level that they’re capable of. And we haven’t got all seven, eight guys doing that in a couple weeks.”
Auburn took advantage of Tennessee’s post struggles and dominated the Vols in the paint. The Tigers won the rebounding battle 41-34, had 16 offensive rebounds that led to 19 second chance points and scored 22 points in the paint.
Tennessee has one game remaining in the regular season. It’ll host Florida next Sunday after not having a mid-week game this upcoming week. A week of practice without a game could serve a struggling club greatly.
“I don’t understand the inconsistencies because there are enough guys that played enough basketball right now,” Barnes said. “This week we have to go back, take a good, hard look. All of us. Everybody in the program. What can I do on my part to make this program what it should be, what we expect from it? And see if we can use this week to get better.”