CBB Top 25 Breakdown
After each week of the season that Tennessee plays at least two games, “The Starting Five” on Monday will analyze the previous week of play from the Big Orange while highlighting questions Tennessee is facing in the coming weeks in five subheadings.
This week Tennessee went 1-0 earning its top win of the season to date over No. 6 Arizona. This week’s starting five will have a more broad outlook, looking at the Vols 11 games into the season with SEC play set to begin Wednesday.
Now, on to the starting five.
Tennessee Earns Marquee Win
After a frustrating weekend saw Tennessee’s rivalry game with Memphis cancelled, the Vols returned to the court after an eight-day hiatus to take on No. 6 Arizona at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols jumped out to a quick double-digit lead thanks to a 16-2 run to open the game. Arizona made a handful of runs, even tying the game in the second half. Still, Tennessee made enough plays to hold on and win, thanks in large part due to its veterans.
Josiah Jordan James made a pair of big second half triples with the Wildcats surging, Santiago Vescovi spearheaded a 5-0 run on his own and most importantly, John Fulkerson took over down the stretch.
The super senior power forward got Tennessee to the finish line, scoring seven of his team-high 24 points consecutively in the game’s final minutes.
With the win, Tennessee improved to 9-2 in the pre conference slate including a 3-2 record against power six opponents. Rick Barnes’ seventh Tennessee team has a strong diversity of wins, earning a road victory, a neutral site victory over an NCAA Tournament team and a home victory over a Final Four contender.
The Arizona win is undoubtedly Tennessee’s best of the young season and gives them a marque win that should bolster its resume come March.
Vols Shorten Bench In Win Over Arizona
Through the first 10 games of the season, Tennessee played more players than they have throughout the Rick Barnes’ era.
Tennessee has 10 players averaging 9.9 or more minutes per game but against the WIldcats only eight players played 10 minutes and only six players played over 13 minutes.
Brandon-Huntley Hatfield played just two minutes while Victor Bailey Jr. just played one in the win. The bench shrunk even more in the second half when Uros Plavsic played just two minutes after playing eight in the first half.
Postgame Barnes said the shrunk rotation was due to Arizona’s smaller rotation and matching the Wildcats’ small ball lineup with James playing the four spot.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder what Tennessee’s rotation will look like in the thick of SEC play. James playing the four seems to be increasing every game and that would shrink the minutes for Plavsic and Huntley-Hatfield.
If that’s the case, I anticipate there being games where Plavsic earned 10-15 minutes off the bench and games where Huntley-Hatfield earns 10-15 minutes off the bench due to matchups.
I still think Huntley-Hatfield has the highest ceiling of any of Tennessee’s big men and am interested to see how his play and minutes develop. Wednesday’s SEC opener at Alabama seems like a matchup that’s better for Huntley-Hatfield than Plavsic and Barnes said Monday that the freshman had a good practice Sunday night.
In the backcourt, Bailey and Justin Powell seem to teeter back-and-forth in Barnes’ graces. Powell’s minutes have increased as the season has gone on and freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler has been consistent enough to earn 17.5 minutes per game.
Fulkerson Bouncing Back
As previously mentioned, John Fulkerson was fantastic in Tennessee’s win over No. 6 Arizona, scoring 24 points on eight-of-13 shooting while adding 10 rebounds and two assists.
It was the best game Fulkerson has played since his 27-point performance at Rupp Arena in March of 2020. That performance hasn’t been the norm for the super senior, but Fulkerson has improved his play this season.
While Fulkerson’s stats this season — 9.9 points (57% shooting), 6.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists — are just slightly better than his stats last season — 9.5 points (53% shooting), 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists — it doesn’t tell the full story.
In SEC play last year, Fulkerson struggled greatly. The lefty scored just 8.6 points per game including just 6.9 points per game in the final 10 games of the season. As the competition got greater and Tennessee became even more inconsistent, Fulkerson struggled even more.
While Arizona was the first time Fulkerson looked like the 2019-20 version of himself this season, the Kingsport native has played far better than that stretch all season.
Against the best opponents Tennessee has played, Fulkerson has been extremely solid. The lefty has scored in double figures five times this season and four of those are against power six opponents.
Fulkerson has been great against Arizona and North Carolina and played well against Texas Tech and Colorado. The Vols may not get All-SEC John Fulkerson this winter, but there’s reason to believe he’ll be much improved from last winter.
Can Tennessee Keep Up With A High Powered Offense?
Tennessee opens up SEC play Wednesday night at the conference’s defending champion Alabama.
Under third year coach Nate Oats, the Crimson Tide have rejuvenated their program into one of the SEC’s top programs.
They also play a similar — but more dramatic — style of play that LSU and Auburn do. Those three programs have given Barnes and his program an abundance of issues in recent years.
Since the 2017-18 season, Barnes’ third and breakout season in Knoxville, Tennessee is a combined 3-13 against the three teams and is 49-15 against the rest of the SEC.
The high octane offenses that are guard reliant have given Tennessee issues. The Vols have had the most success against Alabama of that group, winning two of the six meetings in that time frame.
Still, this Alabama team presents all the challenges that Tennessee has struggled with in the past. The Crimson Tide have an elite backcourt with athletic big men.
Alabama’s offense ranks as the best in the SEC and ninth nationally according to KenPom and the backcourt duo of Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford has been tough for anyone to stop.
Still, Tennessee has more defensive versatility than it has in some of the previous seasons. That should bode well against Alabama and the amount of ball screens they run.
The Vols also performed well against another top 15 KenPom offense last week when Tennessee held Arizona far below its yearly average.
If Tennessee is going to win marquee matchups on the road in SEC play, its defense is going to have to be fantastic. Let’s see if the Vols can do that Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa.
Where Does Tennessee Stack Up In SEC?
Tennessee was picked to finish fourth in the SEC this preseason behind Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky. After the pre-conference slate, there’s even more instability as the margins at the top of the conference are razor thin.
Entering SEC play, Tennessee is the second highest rated SEC team in the AP poll. The Vols are No. 14 in the country behind only No. 11 Auburn. No. 16 LSU, No. 18 Kentucky and No. 19 Alabama also make up the poll.
According to KenPom, Tennessee is the highest rated team in the SEC, coming in at No. 9 nationally. Still the Vols are one of many title contenders as LSU (No. 10), Kentucky (No. 11), Auburn (No. 13) and Alabama (No. 18) have as good of a chance as anyone.
Finally, there’s Joe Lunardi’s current bracketology selections. Tennessee is a three-seed and the highest ranked team in the SEC. Both LSU and Kentucky are projected to be four-seeds while Auburn and Alabama are projected to be five seeds.
Needless to say, Tennessee has as good a chance as anyone to win the SEC regular season. However, there are a handful of teams that have a great chance to claim the title.
This is the most competitive the top of the conference has been in some time and it should make for an exciting winter of basketball across the south.