Will the real Tennessee Volunteers please stand up?
Throughout the year, Tennessee has looked like a Top-5 team at times. When things are going well, it’s almost impossible to outmatch the defensive and offensive presence that the Vols can bring to the table.
But when things aren’t going well for the Vols, they can allow seemingly any competent team a potential Top-15 upset on any given night.
Saturday in Baton Rouge went the route of the latter.
After winning four of their last five games including two straight, No. 16 Tennessee was defeated by LSU 78-65 behind the play of Cameron Thomas and Ja’Vonte Smart.
2000’s hip-hop jokes aside, that really could be the motto of this Tennessee basketball team. The Vols continue to play to the level of their opponent, which has both helped and hurt them throughout the season.
“The inconsistency is coming from our older players,” said head coach Rick Barnes following the loss. “That’s the disappointing part.”
All Bark & No Bite
The Vols and the Tigers traded baskets to start the game, but that would be the entire extent of Tennessee’s time with the lead during the game. The Tigers led for a total of 38:03 compared to Tennessee’s 38 seconds.
“We need dogs who bite,” said Barnes referring to the tenacity of his players on the court. “Not bark. Bite.”
The story of the first half for Tennessee was simple. The Vols started out cold shooting the ball for the majority of the half.
With over 15-minutes elapsed in the first half, Tennessee had only mustered 19 points and was trying to break a scoreless streak that lasted over seven minutes. In this time as well, LSU had capitalized and gone on a ten to nothing run close to the end of the first half.
But ultimately, even being down 31-26 at the half was encouraging for Tennessee. However, the Vols only shot the ball 29% from the field in the first half and continued to leave points on the board on inexplicable misses.
Shooting the ball was Tennessee’s first-half Achilles heel, but the team played some pretty good basketball otherwise. At the end of the first half, Tennessee was leading in rebounds, assists, points off turnovers, and bench productivity. But even through that, Tennessee just couldn’t find the bottom of the net.
Time to Look in the Mirror
Yves Pons made his return to the starting lineup after missing Wednesday’s game against Georgia and totaled 25 minutes, which was fifth-most on the team.
Still looking to find his offensive stroke after missing some time, Pons only scored three points on the game, which was the second least on the team behind Anosike’s zero points (in three minutes played).
Pon’s offensive scoring output has been fairly inconsistent throughout the season, but he was averaging a little over 13 PPG in his last four before his return, so one might hope that he was just readjusting back to game speed.
Unfortunately for Rick Barnes and company, Pons wasn’t the only superstar for Tennessee who couldn’t find many points tonight. Once again, John Fulkerson was a non-factor in the game, only scoring four points in total. Fulkerson did not score any points in the second half.
“There’s no question Fulky needs to look in the mirror,” said Barnes on Fulkerson’s recent play. “We’re never going to give up on him because we know what he can do, but ultimately it has to come from within or it won’t happen.”
The inconsistent play of Fulkerson has to be troubling for head coach Rick Barnes, as the senior has as many zero point performances (1) as he does double-digit performances in his last six games.
“It’s mental,” said Barnes on his veteran players struggling. “This game is four times more mental than physical. It’s a mental thing.”
The Vols are still a quality team even with Fulkerson not playing up to his expectations, but the long-term forecast for Tennessee has been significantly hindered as Fulkerson continues to slump.
The Vols had a much better showing offensively in the second half, but unfortunately for them, LSU found their second wind as well.
“Our offense hurt our defense today as well,” said Barnes.
Both teams bested their own halftime scores by over 12 each, but LSU was simply too much for Tennessee to handle all game long.
Springer Continues To Shine
On the bright side, freshman standout Jaden Springer continued his hot streak on Saturday. The Vols guard has averaged 26.5 PPG in his last two games and didn’t disappoint in this one either. Unfortunately, he was just about the only one who had any consistent firepower going for Tennessee today.
Springer finished the night with an astounding line of 21 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.
His other freshman counterpart, Keon Johnson, also had himself a solid outing in the loss and finished as the third-leading scorer with 10 points and 3 rebounds.
As for some of the rest of the team, Santiago Vescovi finished with 13 points as the second-leading scorer and Josiah-Jordan James tied a team-high in rebounds, but ultimately nothing spectacular happened from anyone.
If consistency is key, then Tennessee might be worried that they will get locked out of the house sometime during tournament time.
The Vols have played in games in which they look like world-beaters and other games in which a single offensive and defensive set don’t go right.
It is maddening to watch sometimes.
Interesting note on time played with the lead:
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) February 13, 2021
But either way, Barnes’ Tennessee squad has officially entered the home stretch.
If the two postponed matchups vs. Florida and @South Carolina do not get rescheduled, the Vols have four games remaining until tournament play, splitting them at home and on the road.
Tennessee will be back in Knoxville for their next two matchups against South Carolina and Kentucky respectively, and then finish the season on the road at Vanderbilt and Auburn.
Those four teams have a combined record of 28-42 overall and 15-29 record in conference play.
If there were any time for Tennessee to fasten their seat belts and rattle off four straight wins to end the season, this is as good of a time as any to do so.
No. 16 Tennessee will take on South Carolina in Knoxville Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET.
All Photographs Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.