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Tennessee Has A Lot Of Soul Searching To Do After Embarrassing Loss at Kentucky

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LEXINGTON, Ky — Rick Barnes sat in front of a Zoom call fielding questions from the media about his team’s leadership following the Vols’ blowout loss at Rupp Arena Saturday. 

“If you ask me, of the guys that started, I’m not really sure I could pinpoint one of them,” Barnes said of who are the leaders on his team. “Maybe that will be a great lesson for us. That someone will decide enough is enough.”

That statement, about a Tennessee team with three junior starters and one super senior starter, is almost as alarming as the 28-point beatdown it took from its biggest rival Saturday afternoon.

The Vols are now losers of three of their first five SEC games and have been exposed in back-to-back weekend losses at LSU and Kentucky.

Perhaps the most discouraging part of those two losses is how the top SEC teams dismantled the Vols’ defense. Tennessee entered both matchups with KenPom’s No. 2 defense in the country. 

LSU and Kentucky scored the most and second most points of any team Tennessee has faced this year with a poor offensive LSU team scoring 79 and Kentucky torching the Vols for 107.

“I think we need to do better of taking care of the ball offensively and getting a shot each possession,” forward Josiah Jordan James said. “I think turnovers have been a big part of each of our last two losses on Saturday — being this one and LSU one. We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball and at least getting a shot. And, then, just being able to stay in front of our matchups because this game and the LSU game was a lot of iso ball. We have to take that challenge on and we have to do a better job of it.”

The defensive issues have been two fold. Turnovers have debilitated the Vols in both losses. LSU scored 23 points off of turnovers and Kentucky scored 32. 

The difference between the LSU loss and the Kentucky loss is that Tennessee’s defense woke up in the loss at Baton Rouge. The Vols held LSU to 14 points in the game’s final 10 minutes, cutting the Tigers lead to five until four late free throws iced the game.

That fight never showed up in Lexington. The Wildcats lead ballooned early in the second half and Tennessee never had any answers.

Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington ate Kennedy Chandler’s lunch on offense and Tennessee’s starting front court combined for zero rebounds in 37 minutes.

That’s soft. And that’s what Tennessee looks like right now. A soft basketball team.

“We have to be tougher,” James said. “The want to win has to be there. I feel like everybody on Kentucky’s team had that and I don’t think anyone on our team had that. We got hit early and didn’t respond well.”

Look back at Tennessee’s five losses this season. Opponents punched the Vols in the mouth in four of them and UT only slightly answered the bell in the LSU game — though they never truly made the Tigers’ sweat.

That’s where Barnes’ quote at the open is so glaring. The seventh-year head coach said the only players he feels like are in your face leaders are Uros Plavsic and Jahmai Mashack. They combine for just over 17 minutes a game.

Those can’t be the guys holding everyone else accountable. That leads to losses where you get punched in the mouth and can’t respond. That leads to a head coach hoping and imploring for answers about his team’s leadership.

“We’re going to find out,” Barnes said. “There can be a lot of positives that come out of something like that and the fact of the matter is that we will find out who is going to be the people who step up and do it and mean it when they say it.”

“The last couple years we haven’t had it the way we want it,” Barnes said of his team’s leadership.

Tennessee’s stuck in a desperate spot following its third straight loss to quadrant one opponents. The Vols still have two challenging weeks before the schedule lightens up at the start of February.

Before then, Tennessee has home matchups with LSU and Florida bookended by road trips to Vanderbilt and Texas.

If the Vols find a way to win three games the ship will be steadied and they’ll be back around where they were projected entering January. A 2-2 split leaves Tennessee sitting as a lower seed in the NCAA Tournament. One win has the Vols more concerned about making it to the NCAA Tournament than making any noise in it.

One thing is for sure, opponents have punched Tennessee in the mouth the last two weekends. The Vols haven’t been up for the fight. If you’re going to beat the top of the SEC, you better do some soul searching and strap on your big boy pants. Tennessee’s learned that the hard way.

“Somehow, someway we have to change the vibe with our team,” Barnes said.

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