Leadership, Defense Ends Tennessee’s SEC Tournament Drought

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    TAMPA, Fla. — It was 58 days ago when Rick Barnes questioned his team’s leadership following an embarrassing 28-point loss at Rupp Arena.

    “If you ask me, of the guys that started, I’m not really sure I could pinpoint one of them,” Rick 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.”

    It feels like quite some time ago when Tennessee was 2-3 in SEC play and searching for answers. The Vols are 15-2 since that day and 15-1 against Southeastern Conference opponents — the conference Barnes adamantly called the nation’s best Sunday afternoon — and cut the nets down at the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979.

    “We started off SEC play 2-3, and a lot of people doubted us,” Josiah-Jordan James said. “But we in the locker room, everybody, coaches and players included, never really held our heads down. We just came in and worked each and every day, and that’s what Coach Barnes requires. That’s what our coaching staff requires, and that’s what we started to require out of each other just to keep getting better each and every day. We knew it was a long season, but we just — I mean, it’s just a daily grind here. I feel like we kept taking steps to get better, and we still have a long way to go, but that’s what led us to this point today.”

    58 days later Barnes praised the leadership of Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi. Two “nice guys” who aren’t naturally vocal or confrontational, stepping out of their comfort zones to become the leaders of the team.

    “I think it started a year ago when we had lost,” Barnes said. “We came back, and I remember an article I read about Michael Jordan talking about leadership, and I actually said to him, I don’t think we can go any further unless it comes from you guys. 

    “From that day Josiah, Santi, those two guys in particular, I think, not only because — when they were out with injuries, their involvement, it was incredible the leadership where it changed. It felt like a month ago, a little over a month ago, when they started coaching each other during the game where they were open to each other. Even if it was something, hey, that’s a tough shot. We have to get better. We said for us to move forward, we’re going to have to have great leadership because we’ve always been a team that practiced hard and done all those type things, but in the game and watching these guys take over and talk, communicate, it’s been fun, but that’s where it started a year ago with them deciding that, hey, the leadership had to really come from within, and we’ve gotten it.”

    James and Vescovi have both developed like so many under Barnes tutelage in Knoxville and earned All-Tournament honors in Tampa. James — like he usually is — was the unsung hero in Sunday’s championship game, tallying his third double-double of the season. The junior wing’s versatility allowed Tennessee to go small in the game’s last 10 minutes and step on the Aggies’ throat.

    Vescovi spearheaded the biggest run of the game. After falling behind 14-0, Texas A&M cut Tennessee’s lead to five points early in the second half.

    Kennedy Chandler got Tennessee started with his third triple of the game and Vescovi did the rest. The Montevideo, Uruguay native hit three free throws, stole the ensuing inbounds pass, drilled a triple and then did it again a possession later. In a matter of 1:09, Tennessee’s lead went from five to 15. 

    The Aggies never threatened again.

    While it was Tennessee’s offense that showed radical improvements over the course of the season, the Vols’ defense is what got them back to the top of the SEC.

    The Vols’ suffocated opponents all weekend in Tampa, holding Mississippi State to 59 points, Kentucky to 62 points and Texas A&M to 50 points.

    Kentucky’s 34% shooting from the field was its lowest of the season and Mississippi State was the only opponent to score a point per possession — right at 1.000 — against the Vols.

    Tennessee suffocated offenses in Tampa and was virtually invincible once they got set in its halfcourt defense. That level of defense is why Tennessee trailed for only 1:29 in the whole tournament. 

    How Tennessee has improved on defense this season after losing Yves Pons, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer is truly breathtaking, but that’s what they’ve done, going from fifth to third in adjusted defensive efficiency.

    “I think a couple of things. Santi and Jo probably don’t get enough recognition for their defense, and they’re both in elite shape,” Barnes said of the defense not dropping off. “Zakai came in. He brought us something. … he and Santi have been the biggest teachers for Kennedy because of the way Santi is relentless and the way that he goes at it. And Kennedy I will tell you when he first got here had no one ever defend him like Zakai. No one that defended him like Santi in a different way, but I think it started with that, the attitude in practice with those guys getting at it.”

    Tennessee was all smiles after cutting down the nets for the first time in 43 years. Those smiles have a chance to keep widening with an abundance of goals still out in front of them.

    But no one in Vol Nation will forget the 2021-22 Vols for exercising the demons that plagued Tennessee in the SEC Tournament for decades.

    Ryan Schumpert is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. Ryan spent three years with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program before joining RTI. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.