Tennessee’s season-long Kryptonite revealed itself once again on Saturday, as the No. 19 Volunteers fell at home to Kentucky 70-55.
It was a different game but a similar story in Thompson-Boling Arena for Tennessee. After seemingly getting back on track with a win against South Carolina, the Vols looked flat and were embarrassed at home with only two scheduled games left in the regular season.
Here’s the idea behind Tennessee’s Kryptonite. In each of the Vols’ major wins since SEC play started, they have given up an unexplainable loss immediately after.
After beating Missouri by 20, the Vols lost to Alabama. Then, Tennessee beat Vanderbilt by the same score and lost to Florida the very next game. The Vols even beat Kansas by 19 in a non-conference game but followed that with a loss to Ole Miss.
“We don’t handle success well,” said Rick Barnes after the loss. “We’re not where we need to be mentally yet.”
Again, it’s a different game, with the same story.
Tennessee crushed South Carolina by 20, only to lose to Kentucky by 15.
Since the beginning of conference play, the Vols have only had one three-game winning streak, and two of those games were against the SEC’s worst teams in Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. They have had two two-game winning streaks, but their final chance to get another three-game is done.
In hindsight, with almost the whole season to look back on, Tennessee doesn’t look like a tournament-contending team, in either the SEC or NCAA Tournament.
Yes, the Vols can look like one of the top five teams in the country at times. And while that is great for one game, the Vols have constantly shown their inability to string together consecutive wins.
Barnes mentioned that his team did not do well with the preparation mentally leading up to the game on Saturday.
“We didn’t practice well,” said Victor Bailey Jr. “It bled into the game.”
Vols Drop Their Final Game in Knoxville
As far as the actual game against the Wildcats went, it’s hard to find many positives for Tennessee.
UT might very well be unranked next week. What a disappointment compared to the expectations at the beginning of the season…
— Russell Smith (@Russell___Smith) February 20, 2021
The Vols looked flat and a step behind the whole game.
Kentucky scored on a Davion Mintz three-pointer to give Kentucky the lead at 11-10 with just over five minutes eclipsed on the clock.
The Wildcats would hold the lead for the remainder of the game, which was about 34 minutes.
Not only did it get ugly for Tennessee, but it got ugly quick.
Before Tennessee could even get past the ten-point mark, Kentucky had already extended their lead from 11-10 to 23-10.
Mintz connected on all five of his three-point attempts in the first half, and Tennessee just didn’t have the firepower going to match them step-for-step.
One glaring issue for Tennessee is not that they “don’t” have the firepower needed for these games, but they “didn’t” have it for this game. And in all the losses this season, the same things ring true.
Instead of driving to the basket in the first half when Kentucky started to go on their run, Tennessee chose to once again play non-aggressive basketball, settling for cold-three point attempts and contested mid-range jump shots.
“We want to score at all three levels, including that second level,” said Barnes. “We know we can be effective there. But we didn’t get to the rim enough today.”
Kentucky’s defense is only good at stopping mid range 2s…….. so that’s all we want to shoot today, naturally
— Jon Reed (@Jon__Reed) February 20, 2021
That trend only got worse in the second half.
The Vols were 6-of-22 from three-point range on the day, and a dismal 1-of-12 in the second half.
“I thought some of the three’s were taken by the wrong guys at the wrong time,” said Barnes.
There are few teams who can drop 50 points in one half on a Wednesday and then turn around and score 55 in total on Saturday.
Tennessee didn’t have Josiah-Jordan James for a second straight game, and the lack of his presence was severely felt on the court.
James brings a defensive presence to the perimeter that Tennessee just doesn’t have with him out of the game. And with four players landing in double-digit figures for Kentucky, the Vols could’ve used their star guard.
Tennessee’s Offensive Output
For a second straight game, Bailey Jr. led all scorers on the floor, as he finished with 18 points on the night. Bailey continued his hot outside scoring, as he hit four of eight attempts from three-point range.
The good luck did not continue for John Fulkerson though.
After scoring his season-high 19 against South Carolina, Fulkerson finished with just four points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field. Fulkerson did not record a field goal in the second half.
“One thing we do need is consistency from our veterans,” said Barnes. “I am disappointed because we should be way past this point with consistency.”
Looking back to Tennessee’s previous matchup against Kentucky from just a few weeks ago, the majority of this game actually seemed to be trending the exact same way.
Both teams traded baskets to start the game, Kentucky went on a run, and then maintained a lead well through halftime.
In that game, it was Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson who led an offensive charge to get the comeback victory in Lexington. In this game, it was mostly a different story.
Johnson followed up his 23-point performance against Kentucky with 15 in this game and really showed poise in getting to the free-throw line and making his shots.
“Once we find consistency within each other and our roles, this will be a very fun season for us,” said Johnson after the game.
Springer went for 27 in his first matchup against Kentucky, but only four points in this game. The star guard was only 2-for-11 on the court and did not hit any of his four attempts from behind the arc.
Bailey, Johnson, and Yves Pons combined for 43 points. The rest of the team could only add in 12 more points, including four from the bench.
So, What’s Next?
Many will ask the question: where does this leave Tennessee heading forward?
It seems almost impossible to pin just exactly what this team will look like heading into the SEC Tournament, or really at any point during the tournament season.
There is a lot of talk about how inconsistent Tennessee is, especially with scoring, seemingly from half to half. But on the grander scale, the issue with Tennessee moving forward is the inability to string together multiple consecutive meaningful wins.
The Vols will need to win, at minimum, two straight games to even make it to the SEC Tournament finals, and that number is dwarfed when talking about a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Considering that is something the Vols have done a few times, or not at all in the case of the big tournament since SEC play began, it’s hard to call that anything but concerning for this team moving forward.
The three teams ahead of Tennessee in the SEC standings are Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU.
Alabama already had a nine-game win streak in the SEC and has currently won three straight, Arkansas is on a seven-game win streak, and even LSU rattled off four straight wins earlier this year in conference play.
That is something Tennessee has not done.
Every time Tennessee has had a 20 point win, they have (mostly) followed it up with an unexplainable loss.
W vs Mizzou +20 -> Loss to Bama -8
W vs Vandy +20 -> Loss to FL -26
W vs Kansas +19 -> Loss to Miss -2
W vs SC +20 -> Loss to Kentucky today
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) February 20, 2021
After dropping their final game in Knoxville for the season, the Vols will only have two more chances to right the ship before the SEC Tournament (barring any re-scheduled games due to COVID).
The Vols ( 15-6, 8-6 SEC) will travel to play Vanderbilt (6-12, 2-10) in Nashville on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.
All Images are via the Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) Twitter Account