Undermanned Vols Show Fight, Deficiencies In Narrow Loss At Alabama

    by -

    Best Bets to Win the NBA Championship

    Tennessee had two big reasons not to be competitive in its 73-68 SEC opening loss to Alabama at Coleman Coliseum Wednesday night.

    Perhaps the Vols’ two best players — freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler and super senior power forward John Fulkerson — tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to campus after Christmas.

    Vols’ head coach Rick Barnes said his team knew it wouldn’t have Fulkerson as soon as players returned to campus on Dec. 26 and knew they wouldn’t have Chandler soon after that.

    That preparation, along with great effort, led to Tennessee having a great chance to win on the road against the defending SEC Champions.

    Tennessee never gave an inch to Alabama, leading for over 27 minutes of game time and never trailing by more than the five points they lost by.

    “I’m proud of our guys,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought we fought and we didn’t score when we had a chance to do it sometimes and missed some shots we’d like to make.”

    Tennessee was able to play even with the 19th-ranked Crimson Tide in large part due to its defense. As every sportscaster knows — and loves to remind people — “defense travels.”

    That showed tonight as Tennessee held Alabama to 10 points less that its season average. The Crimson Tide are reliant on their offense and particularly three-point shooting. Entering the game, KenPom ranked Alabama 11th in offensive efficiency.

    The Vols contained Alabama’s star guards Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly and forced enough turnovers to be in a game they shot eight percent worse from the field than the Crimson Tide did.

    This included a nifty two-three zone defense that Tennessee went to in the second half after Alabama was gaining momentum.

    “We knew we would go to it,” Barnes said. “I think our guys understood what we were trying to get out of it and we made a couple there at the end, a couple possessions where our wings didn’t get high enough and we didn’t fan it back in when they had a guy in the corner. Overall, it was good and we knew we could use it.”

    That effort, tenacity and ability to compete well without two starters is a great sign for Tennessee.

    However, as stated earlier, Tennessee had a great chance to win and it always hurts when you don’t pick up a road win you could have.

    A theme all season, Tennessee’s offense sputtered in the second half and was the reason they couldn’t pull off the road win.

    The Vols made just three baskets in the game’s final 11:20 and was only able to stay in the game due to the 10 free throws the made in that time frame — many coming in the bonus.

    Zakai Zeigler did plenty of good to keep the ship afloat in Chandler’s absence, scoring 11 points including eight in the second half on top of dishing out four assists.

    “He was amazing,” Olivier Nkamhoua said of Zeigler. “Zakai is always ready to step up and play hard. He’s always someone that’s willing to take on the challenge against anyone and that’s what we love about him.”

    Besides the freshman guard, Tennessee had few others that could create offense in the second half. Freshman power forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield scored eight first half points in 12 minutes before playing just four second half minutes and not attempting a shot.

    “I though Brandon did his best job preparing for a game this year,” Barnes said. “I thought he came out and had an ease about him but during that stretch we’re talking about (Alabama 10-0 run to end first half) he started making some lackadaisical plays … he threw a couple (bad) passes and broke down a few times defensively.”

    Then with under 40 seconds left in the game, Barnes drew up a masterful play and Zeigler did his job to get Victor Bailey Jr. a wide open three-point attempt that would have given the Vols a 71-70 lead with 28 seconds to play. The lefty missed the shot and after Alabama split two free throws, Zeigler missed a triple that effectively ended the game.

    The play was an undoubtedly great design for the seventh-year coach that’s struggled at getting his players open looks out of timeouts late. However, the decision to draw it up for Bailey — a 23% three-point shooter who was previously one-for three in the game — over 41% three-point shooter Justin Powell was puzzling.

    “We need Justin to want to really lock in defensively,” Barnes said. “He’s capable of doing it, but tonight he had some breakdowns on the defensive end. That’s why we were taking him out. They’re a team that can get on a run and I told him we need him on the court but he has to play both ends of it.”

    Tennessee went to Tuscaloosa undermanned and showed a lot about the character and toughness of its team. However, the offensive deficiencies kept Tennessee from earning a second straight marquee win.

    The Vols now wait a week before hosting Ole Miss at Thompson-Boling Arena for the SEC home opener.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.