The Starting Five: Vols Looking To Turn Page Following Kentucky Loss

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    CFP And New Years Six Bowls Schedule

    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.

    The Vols’ week followed a similar theme to the week before, earning an easy home midweek win over South Carolina before Kentucky trounced UT in Lexington Saturday afternoon.

    Now, on to the starting five.

    Chandler’s Offense Gets Going

    Finding consistent offensive scoring has been a struggle for Tennessee this season. Kennedy Chandler, one of the expected consistent scorers, has been far from that in the last six weeks of the season.

    The freshman point guard has started to regain an offensive rhythm over the past three games. That’s a reason for optimism for a team and offense that have had few the last couple of weeks. 

    In his last three games Chandler is averaging 14.7 points per game, including 17 and 19 point performances on the road at LSU and Kentucky. In the five games between Chandler’s dominant performance at Colorado and LSU, the former five-star averaged 9.4 points per game and only scored in double figures against an awful USC-Upstate team.

    Part of the reason for Chandler’s growing offensive success is his improved shooting from three-point range.

    From the start of December to the LSU game, Chandler’s shooting went into a big slump as the guard made just six-of-27 (22%) of his three-point attempts. Defenses didn’t have to respect his three-point shot on pick-and-roll action and it nerfed Chandler’s effectiveness.

    The guard seems to have refound his stroke as of late, making four-of-nine (44%) of three-pointers in the last three games.

    Still, things haven’t been perfect for Chandler as of late. Kentucky’s backcourt made Chandler look foolish on the defensive end. 

    The point guard’s turnovers have gone up the last few games too. Chandler has 10 combined turnovers in the last three games. There’s not another three game stretch in the season where the freshman has combined for that many turnovers.

    Turnovers Becoming A Concerning Theme

    Tennessee’s offense was inconsistent in the pre conference slate, but one of its true strengths is that they didn’t turn the ball over.

    The Vols entered conference play averaging just over 11 turnovers per game. One of the best rates in the SEC and good for top 30 in the nation.

    Tennessee continued that theme in the SEC opener against Alabama turning it over just 11 times. Since then, turnovers have been an issue for the Vols.

    In the four games since, Tennessee is turning it over 17.25 times per game and haven’t turned it over less than 15 times in a game.

    Why the turnovers have increased is an interesting question. Teams having a better scouting report on Chandler and Zeigler could play a part, but the two freshmen guards are far from Tennessee’s only problem.

    The Vols frontcourt is turning the ball over at a high rate including a combined six turnovers from John Fulkerson and Olivier Nkamhoua in the loss at Kentucky.

    “When we watch it on tape, really, it shouldn’t happen if guys are locked into the game,” Barnes said Monday. “Like those plays there at half court (at Kentucky), I think it was four or five-point game, under four (minutes) to go (in the first half), we turned it over twice at half court. When we’re running, we always tell guys you’ve got to always expect a team to maybe jump you at some point in time. We had three guys that ran like we normally do, like we’re in transition, but they look back and they’ve got to see something is going on. And they didn’t really react. So they left Santi (Vescovi) and Olivier (Nkamhoua) there on their own. That can’t happen.”

    One thing is for sure. If Tennessee is going to start playing at the level it’s capable of, an improved turnover rate is going to be part of that.

    Front Court Likely Won’t Gain Consistency

    Rick Barnes frustration with his front court was palpable after the Vols blowout loss at Kentucky Saturday. For good reason too. Starters John Fulkerson and Olivier Nkamhoua combined for four points and zero rebounds in 38 minutes.

    Outside of a 10 game stretch from Fulkerson at the close of the 2019-20 season, this has been Tennessee’s frontcourt since Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander departed Knoxville for professional basketball.

    The Vols have had no offensive consistency from anyone in the interior. 

    You never say never and crazier things have happened, but that seems to be the reality with this group. Fulkerson, Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield have all had moments and could continue to have some. Expecting consistency from them just doesn’t seem realistic.

    There have only been two times this season where Fulkerson scored double-digits back-to-back games. He scored four and five points, respectively, the following game. The power forward has only had two instances where he grabbed six or more rebounds on back-to-back games.

    Nkamhoua has scored in double-digits back-to-back games just once.

    At this point, it’s hard to expect consistency from anybody in the front court. Could that lead to a new starting lineup and a more guard heavy lineup.

    Does Barnes Mix Up The Starting Lineup?

    Following the loss at Kentucky, it became clear Barnes was searching for answers.

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

    So, could that include a starting lineup change?

    The seventh-year head coach was non-committal about that on Monday, but it is a plausible way for Barnes to mix something up with his team.

    So if Barnes makes a move, what would it be. Let’s start with who gets demoted out of the lineup. We just discussed the inconsistencies with the front court and either Olivier Nkamhoua and John Fulkerson make the most sense.

    With Barnes’ public frustration with Fulkerson and Nkamhoua being a better defender, it seems most likely that Fulkerson will get the boot out of the lineup.

    Now who comes into the starting lineup? There’s two schools of thought here.

    One would be to replace the power forward with another big man. That would be either Plavsic or Huntley-Hatfield. In that case, Plavsic seems the most likely candidate having played more minutes as of late and having more experience.

    Starting Huntley-Hatfield would be an out of the box move that shakes up the lineup, but one that doesn’t fit Barnes tendencies.

    Are Top Opponents Exposing Tennessee’s Defensive Limitations?

    Tennessee’s defense has been the strength of its team this season, ranking as one of the nation’s best.

    However, the last two Saturdays a bad offensive LSU team scored 79 points against the Vols and Kentucky torched Tennessee for 107 points.

    The issues for Tennessee have been two fold. The first is that the turnover issues have led to easy baskets for opponents. LSU scored 23 points off of turnovers and Kentucky scored 32 points on turnovers.

    “A lot,” Barnes said of how much the defensive issues are related to the turnovers. “Our turnovers, again, we keep talking about when we turn people over, we’re not getting enough out of it. We had a three-on-one break and we didn’t get anything. I’d rather shoot it (in transition). Or we had a chance for a lob. But we held onto it. They got back. On that possession, we turned the ball over. You’ve got to capitalize on those plays right there in the open court. Unfortunately for us, other teams are doing that against us when we turn it over.”

    Those turnovers have been debilitating for Tennessee’s chances to beat strong opponents on the road.

    Still, there have been defensive issues for the Vols in both losses— especially against Kentucky.

    Against the Wildcats, the Vols’ ball defense was terrible and the one weakness of this Tennessee defense is its average rim protection.

    When guards get beat off the dribble, Tennessee no longer has Yves Pons to clean up the mistakes.

    Whether those breakdowns were the result of two poor games or two better opponents, time will tell. It’s worth monitoring heading into a critical two weeks.

    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.