NEW YORK, N.Y. — The 2022-23 Tennessee basketball team could beat anybody, taking down a pair of one seeds and a two-seed in the regular season. But any quality team could play with Tennessee on any given night. Ole Miss pushed the Vols to the brink and NIT teams Florida and Vanderbilt knocked off the Vols.
So maybe it wasn’t so unpredictable when Tennessee followed up its fantastic Round of 32 performance against Duke by falling to nine-seed Florida Atlantic 62-55 in the Sweet 16 Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
“It was up-and-down all year,” senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua put it best postgame. “We had great moments. We beat a lot of really good teams and we had a lot of tough losses.”
In a season of inconsistencies, Tennessee’s biggest was finding a way to score the basketball. Point guard Zakai Zeigler’s season ending knee injury magnified that issue taking away the Vols’ second best scorer and best creator.
Star shooting guard Santiago Vescovi knocked down a trio of three-pointers but failed to shake loose often against the Owls. Florida Atlantic allowed him very few good looks and forced him to take a number of challenging off balance shots.
Even with Vescovi near his best, Tennessee needed a second scorer to step up. That didn’t come against Florida Atlantic. Sure, a handful of Vols were offensive threats with five other players scoring between six and 10 points, but no one stepped up in a major way.
Nkamhoua — the hero of Tennessee’s victory over Duke — was largely a non factor. The senior power forward made his first basket over 34 minutes into the game and ended with just six points on nine shots.
It looked like it was going to be fellow senior Josiah-Jordan James’ night early on when he started two-of-three and scored seven points in the first eight minutes. But the first five-star signee of Rick Barnes’ tenure shot one-of-nine from then on to finish with 10 points.
“Our offense wasn’t very good,” Barnes stated postgame Thursday and could have stated many more times this season.
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Tennessee’s performance won’t do anything to quiet the critics of Barnes’ postseason resume. After the Vols’ brilliant plan against Duke, Barnes looked rigid in his ways against the Owls.
The Vols stuck with their two big man lineup for the vast majority of the second half even as Florida Atlantic used its speed to blow past Tennessee, get them in rotations and kill them from the perimeter. After a 22-point first half, the Owls hit five second half triples to power a 40-point second half.
“A lot of it was downhill drives,” sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack said of the second half defensive woes. “Guarding the ball. They were getting downhill. Once they got downhill we had to over help and they were spreading it out for threes and getting in rhythm.”
When asked about his decision to stick with two big men, Barnes touched on a number of things including an offensive advantage playing big and that the coaches “didn’t feel like they (some players) were locked in as much as we needed them to be.”
Tennessee got little offense from its front court in the second half but Julian Phillips — one of the players who would have an increased role in a four-guard lineup — was a complete non factor.
Still, Florida Atlantic’s speed presented Tennessee issues on the defensive end and the Vols didn’t adjust personnel in attempt to slow them down.
The issues peaked with an 18-2 FAU second half run that Tennessee never recovered from.
Barnes deserves more credit for getting a team that had five key players miss multiple games to the Sweet 16 than he will likely receive but the Vols’ season finale will leave a bitter taste in the mouth over the next month.
Florida Atlantic is a good team and not a Cinderella story like its name would indicate, but facing a nine-seed with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the second time in program history is a golden opportunity. One that Tennessee squandered in the second half at Madison Square Garden.
“The Sweet 16 is something to be proud about,” Barnes said. “When you get there, you want more. You want an Elite Eight, you want a Final Four, you want a National Championship game.”