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Mashack: Tennessee Basketball Just ‘Scratching The Surface As A Team’

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee basketball wasn’t without a big win on the season entering Saturday’s clash against No. 20 Illinois, but it had been a month and three losses since the Vols knocked off a strong Wisconsin team in Madison.

Rick Barnes’ ninth Tennessee team showed the high-level they can play at in its first AP Top 25 win of the season, scoring 1.265 points per possession while using a second half run to outlast the Fighting Illini, 86-79, in Knoxville.

The win was both encouraging and a reminder of how good this Tennessee team can be with continued improvement.

“I definitely feel like we’re scratching the surface as a team,” Tennessee guard Jahmai Mashack said postgame. “I don’t think this is no where near as good as we can be. I think it was some obviously some little things that we could have done better in this game when you look back at it. So the fact that we played this well and we’re just now scratching the surface, it’s a lot of room to grow and I think that just makes us even more excited.”

Like the majority of teams in modern college basketball, Tennessee is meshing an abundance of new and returning talent. But preseason and early season injuries stunted the Vols’ quest to merge their talent.

Tennessee’s win over Illinois was just its fourth game at full strength all season and only the second game against a big six opponent at full strength.

More From RTI: Everything Rick Barnes Said After Tennessee Defeated Illinois

“Obviously we like to have everybody. We haven’t had everybody at their best yet,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said earlier this week. “And everybody with the different injuries that we’ve worked through. But, again, we’re just now getting into December.”

Zakai Zeigler missed the vast majority of the preseason rehabbing a torn ACL and Santiago Vescovi missed the final stretch of preseason practice due to personal reasons. Mashack has been adjusting to an ever changing role as Tennessee’s backcourt personnel has oft looked different game-to-game this season.

The veteran trio was stout against Illinois, combining for 32 points (8-of-14 FG), 13 rebounds, 10 assists and zero turnovers.

That’s what’s encouraging for Tennessee. Dalton Knecht’s arrival and Jonas Aidoo’s development have given the Vols serious inside scoring options that make them less dependent on Zeigler and Vescovi to score at a high rate. As the backcourt figures out its exact role and plays at the level they’re capable of, Tennessee should only get better.

That’s all in addition to talented sophomore big man Tobe Awaka— who Barnes stated will improve more than anyone else over the course of the season— and redshirt freshman guard Freddie Dilione— who can provide another offensive spark if Barnes and his staff can pull it out of him.

“When it’s time to really win, when we get into March, when we get into the regular season and the big games start becoming bigger, I think that’s when you’re really gonna see how much our team is improved.” Mashack said. “But like DK (Dalton Knecht) said, we’re gonna compete. We can put anybody out there, we’re gonna compete, but we’re gonna continue to get better. There’s a lot of room for improvement and we’re gonna get it.”

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