Between now and December 23, Tennessee basketball is slated for four contests. That is if no more surprises get in the way. The Vols have seen five games canceled this season for covid-related reasons.
The days leading up to Christmas Eve could prove to be key for Rick Barnes and his talented squad. With just two games under its belt, No.10 Tennessee (2-0) is looking to establish more of identity before going into conference play. A prime opportunity begins tonight, with Appalachian State (4-1) at 7 PM EST.
Shots, Shots, Shots
One way the Vols can bolster their attack is with more shooting. Not only does Tennessee need to be more efficient on the offensive end, but they also need to put up more shots and play faster. A run-and-gun style is never going to be a part of Barnes’ system. But the North Carolina native can at least let some guys play more aggressively.
In just two games, the Vols are averaging 56 field goals. That mark is good for 238th in the country. They are also shooting 33.9 percent from the field. This could be a prime opportunity for some to see their shots go in. Just three players -Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey, and Jaden Springer- have made a three-point attempt. They are a collective 9-of-20 from distance. Everyone else has come up empty on 11 attempts.
Inside the perimeter, E.J. Anosike and Yves Pons are a combined 6-of-25. Getting these guys more looks, especially Pons on the open floor, should generate more confidence and, ultimately, more points. On the flip side, App State is shooting 43.9 percent from the floor. They are averaging 72.7 points per game, led by guard Adrian Delph. The junior is making more than half his shots from the field (51%) and draining 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. Other Mountaineers averaging double-digits in scoring include sophomores Kendall Lewis (11.8) and Donovan Gregory (11.2).
To make up for its lack of shooting, Tennessee has been exceptional on the defensive side. The Vols are ranked fourth in the nation defensively according to KenPom. Through two games, the Big Orange has held opponents to 35.8 percent shooting. Tennessee has forced 40 turnovers, with just 16 of those being steals. Barnes’ bunch plays suffocating defense, with no regard for tempo on the other side. The Vols achieve this success without being philanthropic, too. The great defense has also resulted in just 19 trips to the charity stripe for opponents.
Appy State’s offense tends to be careless. The Mountaineers are averaging 17.3 turnovers per game and a giveaway on 20 percent of plays. This could be another solid stellar performance from the Vols.
Trending in the Right Direction
Both teams have exceeded expectations early in the season. The two are a combined 5-0 against the spread. Appy held games against Carver College and North Carolina Wesleyan. The only chance of finding an oddsmaker for either of those games would be to scan through a back alley somewhere deep in Curacao. For now, we have them down as 3-0 ATS.
Whether you’re a handicapper or just a basketball junkie, it’s easy to notice that both these squads are on the rise.
Head coach Dustin Kerns took an 11-win Sun-Belt team and turned it into a tough crew that would go on to notch 18 victories under its belt in 2019. App State also finished above .500 in conference play last season. Their only loss this season came from a 78-76 overtime defeat against Bowling Green.
For the Vols, Barnes has reloaded the stable rather quickly. After a dip in production last year, the veteran coach welcomes two darling freshmen and a graduate transfer to add to his foundation of veterans. Senior John Fulkerson joins Pons on the early Wooden Watch radar. The forward is averaging 13 points and 7.5 rebounds while the latter is leading the team in minutes. Tennessee is one of 11 schools with multiple players on the list.
I think the Vols get things going offensively here. Amazingly, Anosike and Pons have made so few attempts on as many shots as they’ve taken. And these are formidable bigs we’re talking about, with one being a cyborg. I think these two get a bunch of cleanup work around the glass tonight and see some shots go in. Pons will hit his first three, and that will breed confidence and more makes. Hopefully, the Frenchman can get some looks in the open floor. The Vols will certainly have the opportunity to push the tempo with Appy State’s tendency to turn the ball over.
I would love one of the freshmen to break out this game. But I think that comes later in the week. For now, I think Barnes sticks to the same starters and formula. The only difference being, shots will start to fall from guys that are struggling offensively. The line (-19) is dead-on here, but I like the over (+/-132) in this one.
Player of the Game: Yves Pons 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks
Score: Tennessee 78 Appy State 60