Tennessee’s SEC tournament dreams came to a halt on Saturday in Nashville, as one of the Vols best performances of the season ultimately fell just short of victory.
But with the NCAA tournament now right around the corner, one question remains: Does Tennessee have what it takes to make a run in the tournament?
For the most part, in their two tournament games on the weekend, Tennessee looked like a completely different team overall than the group who stepped on the court against Auburn and Kentucky to close the season. Even though some of the same deficiencies still carried over, as well.
Against Florida, Tennessee played a gritty, dominant game. And against Alabama, Tennessee showed a glimpse of how good they can be, along with a reminder of just where the team can struggle.
Tennessee (18-8, 10-7 SEC) was defeated by Alabama (23-6, 16-2 SEC) by a score of 73-68 in the SEC tournament semifinal round.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “We’ve played Alabama twice and haven’t had a full roster for both.”
As great as Tennessee looked at times during the game, flashing moments of offensive and defensive brilliance, a sour taste was all that was left by the end.
Tennessee Struggles to Close the Second Half
The Vols led the Tide for an overwhelming majority of the game, but business would pick up in the second half as Tennessee’s lead evaporated quickly.
After leading by nine points at halftime, Alabama outscored Tennessee 16 to eight right out of the gate in the second half, cutting the Vols lead down to one with 12 minutes remaining.
“I think we just had a lot of mistakes,” Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi said after the game. “The pressure got to our heads.”
In the first eight minutes, Tennessee was outscored by eight, and also committed eight turnovers. The unlucky number of the day, it would seem.
Tennessee finished with 19 turnovers in the game.
Unlike previous instances where Tennessee has gone cold for a stretch of time due to poor shooting, Tennessee hardly ever had the chance to even shoot during this one. Considering half of their possessions in that span resulted in a turnover, Tennessee wasted far too many opportunities to start the second half.
“Once they went on a run,” said Barnes. “We got fatigued.”
Vols look gassed…
— Russell Smith (@Russell___Smith) March 13, 2021
Even still, Tennessee would hold onto the lead until a Jahvon Quinerly layup sent Alabama ahead by one with 5:26 remaining.
Alabama would go up a few points after Quinerly continued to make shots down the stretch until a Yves Pons three-pointer cut the Tide’s lead down to one with 33 seconds remaining.
In a surprising turn of events, sophomore Devante Gaines checked into the game, and forced a critical and highly-difficult stop on the defensive end, even getting fouled in the process.
Gaines, a season 55.6 percent free-throw shooter, stepped up to the line with Tennessee down one point. And with 25 seconds remaining in regulation, he would miss both attempts.
Although a disappointing moment for Gaines, Barnes was quick to praise his young player after the game.
“We put him in to do the job and he did the job,” said Barnes. “We put him in for defense, we absolutely knew he’d guard Herb Jones. I am so proud of him for going in and doing the job we asked of him.”
Ran out of gas. Gaines got put in a very tough spot, he was in for defense. I’m still not sure he even got fouled, but it is what it is.
Just a tough game.
— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) March 13, 2021
Tennessee would have one more attempt though, but it wasn’t a good one in the slightest.
A play that looked clunky from the beginning saw Vescovi receive the inbounds pass from Jaden Springer. Vescovi dribbed to the top of the key, and then awkwardly gave up the ball to Victor Bailey Jr. who was forced to throw up an unbalanced, off-target airball.
And on that note, Tennessee’s SEC tournament hopes came to an end.
“I told the guys they weren’t going to put their heads down because I won’t allow it,” Barnes said following the SEC tournament loss. “I’ve been around this game a long time. I like where our team is right now. I’m not afraid of us playing any team anywhere.”
The Bigger Picture for Tennessee Basketball
It’s disappointing that Tennessee did wind up crumbling in the way they did because it overshadows what was a really productive first half of the game.
But that right there, isn’t that the epitome of this Tennessee basketball team?
Glimpses of greatness throughout the season are overshadowed as the team struggles to consistently sustain top-level play.
In the Vols last six halves of basketball, against Florida and Alabama, Tennessee put out a stretch of dominant basketball. But ultimately, it fizzled out in just their second game of a back-to-back.
From halftime of the regular-season finale to halftime of the Alabama tournament game, Tennessee showed exactly what they can look like at their best. A smash-mouth, tough, aggressive, defensive-minded team. But all it took was one lackluster half to get knocked out of the tournament.
Johnson Falls Just Shy of a Double-Double as the Freshmen Shine
The Vols played their first game with John Fulkerson sidelined, as the star forward showed off his battle wounds from the Omar Payne incident, resulting in a nasty black eye.
After the game, Barnes mentioned that he doesn’t know if Fulkerson will be able to play next week. He also said that head evaluations are something that will happen on a daily basis with an injury like this.
Like they have time and time again towards the end of the season, Tennessee’s two freshmen guards willed the team as far as they could.
Keon Johnson, who deserves praise for the amount of energy he played with on the court, led the Vols in scoring with 20 points. Johnson erupted for 16 points in the first half and found his stroke early from the midrange.
But most noticeably, Johnson was relentless around the rim. He ended up falling one rebound shy of a double-double in points and rebounds on the day.
When Johnson trailed off scoring-wise in the second half, his freshman counterpart Springer was able to continue the work he was putting in during the first half.
Springer totaled eight points in the first half and 10 in the second, as all but three of his attempts came within the three-point line. Springer continually found success driving to the lane, whether he ended up taking it to the hoop, kicking the ball out, or pulling up for a mid-range shot.
After leading the team in scoring the day before against Florida, Vescovi was the third and final Tennessee player to finish with double-digit points on the day.
Vescovi led the team in three-pointers made as he sunk three of his six attempts. Those nine points contributed to his 11 in total on the day.
In Fulkerson’s absence, Uros Plavsic saw 17 minutes of game time and probably had his most productive game in a Tennessee uniform. But there’s also a glaring weakness when Plavsic is on the court, and it’s one that Tennessee will have to solve quickly if Fulky is out for extended time.
Plavsic, especially in the second half, was the second half of Tennessee’s pick and roll offense. The issue was that Alabama had no respect for Plavsics’ offensive game. Clearly shown by their complete disregard to switch and have someone prioritize Plavsic on the roll.
Instead, Alabama would immediately swarm the ballhandler with a double-team trap. Plavsic just didn’t look experienced enough to know how to get open, or at least take advantage, in the situation.
Plavsic finished with four points and three rebounds on the day.
The winner of the SEC tournament will be decided on Sunday afternoon. The Vols will find out their tournament seeding just a few hours after the conference championship games end.
The official Selection Sunday show will air at 6 p.m. ET on CBS, as dozens of Division I hopefuls await to see their road to the Final Four.
“I am excited,” said Barnes as the team’s attention has officially been turned to The Big Dance. “We want to win this. We want to be a team that’s in the tournament every year. I know what this team will do and that’s play their hearts out.”
While the end result was disappointing, the weekend was still successful in the grander picture.
For starters, Tennessee did not have any kind of abysmal loss to knock them backward in the seedings. Not to mention, they have two very good performances to point to from the tournament.
According to Bracket Matrix, the Vols will likely end up around a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament, although movement can always occur as the final few teams remaining in college basketball compete for their crown.
Really Though, What’s Next?
Yeah… ultimately, it’s hard to judge where Tennessee is after this game.
The team should absolutely be optimistic after they seemingly found some kind of spark in the last three games. It has elevated their pace of play, although sometimes maybe a little too much.
If Tennessee can emulate the best parts of their last three games, they are as dangerous as any team. They just proved that they have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the No. 6 team in the country, even without the heartbeat of the team.
The reoccurring issue is that Tennessee’s elite play is almost never sustained. At least for a meaningful stretch of games, which doesn’t bode well for tournament play.
There is plenty of reason to be optimistic that this team can make some noise in the tournament. But there’s also plenty of reason to be nervous.
Tennessee’s current play, to me, is encouraging. Their track record on the season, however, is not.
Ah, there really is nothing like the drama of college basketball during tournament season.
Stay tuned to Fanrun Radio for updated content and news on Selection Sunday and all-throughout the 2021 NCAA tournament.
All photos are courtesy of the University of Tennessee Athletics Department