Velus Jones Senior Bowl Interview
Tennessee is looking for its fifth straight SEC win as the Vols head to Columbia for their second win over the Gamecocks in the last month.
The Vols dominated South Carolina, 66-46, at Thompson-Boling Arena in mid January. However, the Gamecocks have won three of their last four games and UT has struggled away from home.
All six of Tennessee’s losses came away from Thompson-Boling Arena and the Vols are just 1-3 on the road in SEC play. Tennessee is playing better as of late, but the Vols only road games were a narrow win at Vanderbilt and a narrow loss at Texas.
“It’s tough to win on the road anywhere,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said Friday. “Neutral sites, you’d like to think it’s a 50/50 toss up. Anyone can get those, but when you go on the road in conference— winning a conference road game is really, really hard to do. Every league in the country, there’s not a coach at any level — I don’t care what league you’re talking about. I don’t care if they’re going to play the first place team or the last place team— nobody thinks it’s ever going to be easy. … When you’re the visiting team and have a chance to win the game, you can’t keep throwing life lines to the home team. You can’t.”
After scoring 35 points in the first 34 minutes at Texas, the Vols’ offense has caught fire. The 16-1 run to end the Texas game wasn’t enough to pull off the miraculous comeback, but Tennessee players said the lessons learned from that stretch were eye opening.
Tennessee responded with its best offensive game of the season, scoring 90 points on a strong defensive Texas A&M team. The outburst was a true team effort with five Vols scoring between 14 and 16 points.
Included in that was Olivier Nkamhoua tallying 15 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. The junior forward was a legit offensive threat for the first time in SEC play.
“You feel like with Olivier it was a matter of time,” Barnes said. “Now it’s going to be, can he maintain that? I think he is getting more comfortable. I think he’s starting to understand the game as a whole instead of just pieces of it. … In a game, we’ve told him, ‘you’re never going to get to play one-on-one.’ People are going to be coming at you from here or there or maybe everywhere. I think that’s where he’s start to find out he’s going to have to be quick in space— in a tight space— knowing that those gaps close real quickly. I do think the game is slowing down for him which I think is a big part of basketball.”
Consistency was the name of the game at Barnes’ Friday media availability, and for good reason too.
Besides the play of Santiago Vescovi — and to a lesser degree Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler — Tennessee hasn’t found any consistent performers this season.
That’s especially true in the front court, where Barnes is searching for production from one of John Fulkerson, Uros Plavsic, Nkamhou and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield each game. Still, there’s need for consistency across the roster.
“We need what Justin Powell gave us (against Texas A&M), we need what VJ (Victor Bailey Jr) gives us, we need what Jahmai Mashack can give us coming in because he brings a little different twist to the game when he comes in,” Barnes said. “He has the ability to drive it and get deep against the grain of the defense. Brandon (Huntley-Hatfield), Fulky … We need those other guys to give us some buckets.”
Tennessee’s going to need consistency on the road the rest of the season. Five of the Vols’ final nine games are on the road and Tennessee will be either slight underdogs or favorites in all five games. If Tennessee wants to make a run to end the season, they need to take care of business in four of those five games against lesser opponents.
That starts Saturday at 1 p.m. ET when Tennessee tips off against Colonial Life Arena against South Carolina.