One of the common gimmicks that surround the annual March Madness tournament is “survive-and-advance”.
It seems as though Tennessee has adopted that mindset here at the end of the regular season, as well.
On a chilly evening in Nashville, the Vols did a little bit of surviving, and a little bit of advancing.
The No. 25 ranked Volunteers (16-6, 9-6 SEC) defeated Vanderbilt (6-13, 2-11 SEC) by a score of 70-58 on Wednesday, but the game was all but comfortable to watch.
Tennessee returned to full strength on Wednesday, as Josiah-Jordan James reentered the rotation after he missed the previous two games with a wrist injury. James returning to the lineup is big news for Tennessee, even though his initial production might not have been there in his return.
Before the game, reports had circulated that Dylan Disu, Scotty Pippen Jr., and Clevon Brown were ruled out just about an hour before tip-off.
This meant that not only was Tennessee’s leader returning to the lineup, but Vanderbilt would also be missing a few of their own star players.
So, with all that said, it’s a little challenging to try to break down this game. Tennessee won the game, but at this point in the season, it’s less about just winning and more about how you win.
There was some good, some bad, and some ugly. So let’s take a look at all of it.
Tennessee Basketball: THE GOOD
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 25, 2021
Starting with the positive takeaways from the game, three things, in particular, stuck out.
The first is the continued scoring outburst from Tennessee junior Victor Bailey Jr.
If anything, Bailey might have it in his head that he can Kemba-Walker-UConn the Vols straight to the SEC title game.
He is certainly acting that way on the court at least.
Bailey finished the night with 21 points leading all scorers on the floor. He made exactly half of his 14 shots taken from the floor, including five-of-eight from behind-the-arc.
The Austin, TX native has 68 points in his last three games and has made 16 three-pointers in that span.
The biggest turnaround for the junior has been the reemergence of his three-point shot. In Bailey’s first four games in February, he was shooting just under 19-percent from three. In his three games since, he has shot that number all the way up to just over 60-percent.
A welcome sight to see for Tennessee.
Another encouraging sight for the Vols was seeing Jaden Springer return to form after only scoring four points against Kentucky on Saturday.
Springer finished with 20 on the night, trailing only Bailey in terms of points.
While Springer did not hit a three-pointer on the night, half of his points came from the charity stripe.
The standout freshman finished a perfect 10-of-10 from the free-throw line. Springer was able to consistently draw his fouls against mismatched opponents when he drove to the hoop.
During the South Carolina game last week, Springer was noticeably driving to the basket with more aggression, and it was easy to see.
In that postgame recap, it was talked about how Springer “looked incredibly comfortable off-balanced around the rim and showed how much he can take advantage of out-of-position defenders.”
He continued that tonight.
Springer again showed why he is one of the brightest shining players for this Tennessee team and has proved that he can impact the games in a multitude of ways. On Wednesday, he showed that on the free-throw line.
Free points are always good.
Lastly, in terms of the positives, Tennessee maintained playing with the lead for a large majority of the game, even if it didn’t always feel like that.
After taking the lead at 21-20 with 5:41 left in the first half of play, the Vols would go on to hold that lead for the entirety of the game.
Tennessee led for a total of 33:54, while Vanderbilt only held the lead for a combined 1:59.
Frankly, this is the way it should have gone.
And it did.
Regardless of how much the winning margin is, Tennessee should have dominated the lead time in that game.
And they did.
Tennessee Basketball: THE BAD
Even with all the positive takeaways mentioned above, Tennessee played far from a perfect game.
Only two players were highlighted in the section above because, well, the rest of the team just did not have a great game.
Aside from Bailey (21), Springer (20), and Yves Pons who finished with 10, the rest of the team only managed to put up 19 points.
Been BEGGING for Pons to put it on the floor and ATTACK!
He finally does it, aaaand….. DUNK https://t.co/cvzOJIYmT7
— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) February 25, 2021
Yes, the remaining six players who saw the floor for Tennessee only found 19 points.
And that includes John Fulkerson, Keon Johnson, and Santiago Vescovi.
This trend from Tennessee actually follows the Kentucky loss fairly similarly. In that game, 43 of Tennessee’s 55 total points came from three players as well: Pons, Johnson, and Bailey Jr.
Fulkerson finished with four points on the night for his fourth time in his last five games.
As weird as it is, it’s true.
That is well past a casual concern for head coach Rick Barnes and his Tennessee squad.
It’s been an underwhelming season for Fulkerson, both based on last year’s production and this year’s expectations.
It’s been a weird and unpredictable season, to say the least. It seemingly has taken some players more time to adjust than others. But even still, after Fulkerson’s season-high outburst of 19 against Kentucky followed by another game in single-digits, it’s likely past time to hit the panic button on one of Tennessee’s fan favorites.
As far as the game itself, Tennessee’s most concerning stretch was right out of the gate.
Tennessee did not look ready to play from the opening tip-off which allowed Vanderbilt to build a 20-17 lead after 13 minutes played.
Granted, just a moment later, Tennessee began a 15-to-2 run to close out the half and built themselves a lead in which they wouldn’t give up.
But that was already mentioned in the good.
Tennessee’s alter-ego began the game for the Vols, and it did not look good offensively.
There have been bad stretches of offense for Tennessee plenty this season. But something about the beginning of this game left an uneasy feeling in the stomach.
Considering the talent level of Vanderbilt, considering the fact three of their best players including Scotty Pippen Jr. were removed from the lineup an hour before the game, and considering Tennessee was back playing at full strength for their second time in the last five games…
… the expectation for this game was to win handily. That leads to the majority of the “ugly” conversation.
scenes from Nashville ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/pnNuLbHE3Y
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) February 25, 2021
Tennessee Basketball: THE UGLY
One of the more frustrating things about this team is that they continue to often play to the level of their opponent. Essentially, rather than forcing their opponents to play to the Tennessee standard.
In some ways, this can be great. We have seen Tennessee basketball step up and go toe-to-toe with some good teams. But on the other hand, they have let too many bad teams hang around during games.
This team is broken. They might win tonight, but we have no plan offensively.
— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) February 25, 2021
Look at it this way. In every SEC game that Tennessee has played this season, as well as the Kansas matchup in the middle, the Vols have been favored to win that game according to the sportsbooks.
Yet in two of their last three losses to Ole Miss and Kentucky, those teams were a combined 16-21.
That also includes the wins against Mississippi State and Georgia, which weren’t the prettiest of wins either.
That is not to say that the expectation is for Tennessee to pummel each and every team they are favored against in the season. And as long as you win, it’s not even the worst thing that could be happening.
But the eventual worry is that Tennessee’s style of play and inconsistency will give leeway for a lower-seeded team in the tournament to give the Vols the outcome they arent looking for.
So, where does this leave the Tennessee basketball team?
Well, surviving and advancing.
Tennessee took the March Madness gimmick and put it into effect against the Commodores on Wednesday.
The Vols had a couple of moments where they looked like they were just surviving. But now, the Vols advance to their final scheduled home game of the year, and the final chance to gain momentum before losing is completely off the table.
So to recap, what did this game teach us?
A couple of things.
Victor Bailey Jr. seems to be back for the Vols, while John Fulkerson is not.
Tennessee will continue to rely on their freshman until the experienced players can find their rhythm.
And, Rick Barnes still owns Vanderbilt.
All images are via the official Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) Twitter Account