NCAAM: Louisville Still Top Tier?
Tennessee’s 16-1 run to close the Texas game wasn’t enough to earn a miraculous come from behind win. However, the lessons learned from the excellent six minutes were a driving force in the Vols’ 90-80 win over Texas A&M Tuesday night.
The Vols’ offense had their best performance against a quality opponent all season. Tennessee shot 51% from the field and 42% from three-point line.
We’ve seen Tennessee have strong shooting games at Thompson-Boling Arena, but this was different than that. The Vols played with an extra juice on the offensive end that they haven’t had for much of the season.
“I think a big part of it was the ending of the game Saturday,” Olivier Nkamhoua said of the offensive success. “We saw what we can do and how we can play with force and speed and attack. Not necessarily saying we want to shoot the ball early but moving with speed, moving the ball and playing with tremendous force and just knowing which shots personally everybody can shoot.”
“That Texas game ending gave us a clear idea of how to do it. I think our best bet is to keep pushing this way.”
Tennessee’s offense had a sense of urgency from the jump against the Aggies. The Vols avoided the long scoring droughts that have become a staple of this team and avoided getting drawn into long possessions.
The Vols didn’t have a single shot clock violation and only had to force bad shots late in the clock a handful of times.
Texas A&M couldn’t stay in front of Tennessee’s guards and the Vols capitalized with their best ball movement of the season. The Big Orange assisted on 22 of their 29 baskets including 15 assists from the backcourt trio of Santiago Vescovi, Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler.
“I feel like we found our groove the last six/seven minutes of that Texas game,” Josiah Jordan James said. “Coach really just put an emphasis on us playing fast and getting our groove on offense because — like I said — I think our defense will be with us night-in-night-out. It’s just our inconsistencies on offense. We just tried to learn from what we did in that short period of time at Texas and just tried to put it on display today.”
James got Tennessee in an offensive groove quickly, drilling a triple on the first possession of the game and scoring seven points before the first media timeout.
The versatile junior spent the final 11:20 of the first half on the bench with two fouls, but still played one of his best games in a Tennessee uniform. James totaled 14 points on four-of-seven shooting, eight rebounds and five steals.
“I thought the way he got started offensively was one of his best games ever,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I loved the way he took the ball hard to the basket. On that layup, I think he took one dribble when he was in stride — maybe two and stretched out and made that layup. … We need him. We need him playing like that.”
James and Nkamhoua are the x-factors for Tennessee’s offense. As great as the ball movement and guard play was, the reason the Vols scored 90 points was because of that front court production.
If the juniors combined for 29 points a game, this team has Final Four potential.
Which raises the question, how much of Tennessee’s offensive success was due to the energy and force they played with and how repeatable is that?
“Nothing in SEC basketball is easy,” James said. “It’s all tough. But, yeah, I do think it is repeatable. It’s going to take a lot of diligence. It’s going to take a lot of mental toughness and physical toughness, but that’s what great teams do. They come in night in and night out and can rely on their offense and their defense.”
One game is just that. One game. However, Texas A&M is far from a slouch defensively ranking 58th nationally in adjusted efficiency. This wasn’t the result of playing a bad defensive team that was without energy.
Tennessee has the chance to show that its offensive outburst was more than a one-off occurrence Saturday when they travel to South Carolina to take on an always strong Gamecocks’ defense.