The Starting Five: Vols Stumble Out The Gates In SEC Play

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    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.

    Tennessee returned to the floor this week after dropping its SEC opener at Alabama the week before, splitting matchups with Ole Miss and LSU.

    The Vols creeped past the massive underdog Rebels before struggling in Baton Rouge.

    Now, on to the starting five.

    Last Season’s Fulkerson Returns

    In my last version of the starting five — which came before the start of SEC play — I talked about how John Fulkerson wasn’t playing at the level he did during the 2020 season, but he was playing much better than he had last season.

    At that point, Fulkerson had scored in double digits in four of Tennessee’s five games against power five opponents including his dominant 24-point effort against Arizona.

    Since then Fulkerson contracted COVID-19, missed the Alabama game and played extremely poorly in both games this week.

    The super senior combined for eight points and five rebounds in the two games, spending winning time on the bench. In fact, Fulkerson spent the mass majority of the second half at LSU on the bench.

    After the game, Barnes sent a strong message to Fulkerson while talking to the media.

    “We need John to help us or he needs to step aside,” Barnes said. “I’m telling you, we need him. We’ve talked to him enough about it and he needs to come out and know how people are playing him. He can’t stand there with a team we talked about all week is going to reach, grab, poke at the ball and let the ball stay away from his body. We keep talking to him about it. He plays too vertical. You’ve got to get down — again, I think it gets down to him needing to play tougher and harder. I’m not going to say more physical because we’re not asking him to do that, but we are asking him to do what he needs to do to get into space and play, but defensively and rebounding wise he has to do that. If he does nothing but do that it’ll help us.”

    Last season, Barnes said Fulkerson struggled with COVID-19 fatigue. That could be a possibility for what we’re seeing right now. However, it’s clear Barnes isn’t going to have the same patience he did last season.

    If the Vols are going to avoid the pitfalls they did in SEC play last season, Fulkerson has to give Tennessee more— especially on the offensive end of the court.

    Vescovi Is Tennessee’s Lone Consistent Player

    This was not a good week for Tennessee basketball. It would have been a much worse week if Santiago Vescovi didn’t come to the rescue with 12 clutch points in the final minutes of regulation and overtime in Tennessee’s win over Ole Miss.

    The junior has been the one steady force on this Tennessee team all season. He’s more than lived up to Barnes’ preseason billing as Tennessee’s most improved player. In fact, there’s a strong argument to make that he’s been the Vols best player.

    The Uruguay native certainly isn’t the most athletic or talented player on this team but he’s done everything well.

    Vescovi is second on Tennessee in scoring, fourth in rebounding, second in assists, second in steals and is turning it over just 1.3 times a game on top of becoming a lockdown defender.

    Besides all of that, the most important part of Vescovi’s success is his consistency. 

    The junior has scored in double figures in all but three games — two were lesser opponents who Tennessee handled easily. Vescovi is playing 32 minutes a game in contests against power five opponents and is averaging 15.1 points in those games.

    He’s the one player on this Tennessee team bringing it night in and night out. That’s a problem for the Vols.

    It’s one thing for freshmen like Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler to have games where they disappear, but veterans like Fulkerson and Josiah Jordan James simply have to be much better and much more consistent if this team wants to go anywhere.

    Is Tennessee’s Offense Broken Again?

    Last season, Tennessee’s offense broke once it got to SEC play. The Vols had no consistent scorers, poor shooting and a lack of a true point guard and it showed. Tennessee found no consistency and stumbled into the NCAA Tournament where Oregon State quickly and easily dislodged them.

    Through three SEC games this season, some of those same issues are rearing their ugly heads again.

    Tennessee currently ranks seventh in the SEC with 75 points per game, but the Vols are averaging just 67 points in their first three SEC games. 

    Let’s examine whether the Vols’ offense is truly broken or if this is a recent blimp.

    Let’s start with the bad. Like last year, finding a consistent scorer has been a struggle for Tennessee. Vescovi has been the one consistent guy, but he’s not a high volume scorer. With Fulkerson’s struggles, Tennessee doesn’t have a consistent inside scoring presence. 

    The Vols roster and offense is built to make three-pointers and they aren’t doing that. Tennessee is making 32% of its triples and we’ve seen a large enough sample size to believe that is the quality of shooting team Tennessee is.

    Then there’s the fact that Tennessee changed its offensive philosophy this year to put the ball in freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler’s hands. Chandler hasn’t been consistent enough for that to be super successful, but that’s also a big difference in this year’s team.

    Tennessee had no true point guards last year. They have two this season. They’re getting open looks from three and we see games where Chandler is an excellent offensive scorer that can bring the Vols success. Zakai Zeigler is no slouch either. 

    Despite his inconsistencies, Chandler is a much better scorer than either Keon Johnson or Jaden Springer were.

    Is that enough for Tennessee to avoid another tailspin? Time will tell, but that gives more reason for optimism.

    Will Barnes Shorten The Rotation?

    Rick Barnes is known for playing short rotations in his first six seasons in Knoxville. However, that has been far from the case this season. 

    The Vols are playing 10 players over 10 minutes a game this season and freshman Jahmai Mashack is earning more minutes in recent games.

    Now, 10 players aren’t playing extended minutes in every single game. Usually, only Justin Powell or Victor Bailey Jr. earns major minutes with the other one playing a lesser role. You can say the same thing about Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Uros Plavsic.

    Still, Tennessee plays 10 or 11 players every single game and it’s fair to wonder whether that’s hurting this team’s offensive rhythm. Obviously that’s not a slam dunk. Tennessee had a short rotation last season and couldn’t figure out its offensive issues. 

    Whether Barnes shortens the rotation is one of my biggest questions about this team with 16 games left until Tennessee heads to Tampa Bay for the SEC Tournament.

    Kennedy Chandler, Zakai Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi, Josiah Jordan James, Olivier Nkamhoua and John Fulkerson are locked into a serious rotation spot. I’m not sure anyone else is — though Uros Plavsic is moving in that direction.

    Look Ahead At A Massive Three Weeks

    After a rocky start to conference play, things don’t get any easier for Tennessee as they close out January. The Vols are facing a massive three week stretch for both their chances to finish in the top four of the SEC and for their chances to earn a five-seed or higher.

    Tennessee’s next six games include four against surefire NCAA Tournament teams — two on the road and two at home — and two games they have to win at home against South Carolina and at Vanderbilt.

    Things start on Saturday when Tennessee looks for its third straight win at Rupp Arena. The next Saturday Tennessee will have a chance for revenge when they host LSU at Thompson-Boling Arena. 

    Then Tennessee ends January with the toughest week of the month, hosting Florida in the midweek before Barnes makes his return to Texas for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

    Tennessee’s goal should be simple for the rest of this month: with four of the next six games. If you do that, you’d have steadied the ship going into February, would likely still be a four or five-seed in bracketology and would be either 5-3 or 4-4 in SEC play. 

    With four extremely manageable games to open February, that would give Tennessee a strong chance to climb into the top group in the SEC before the home stretch of the regular season.

    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.