Tennessee seemed to be missing something on Saturday, and Rick Barnes was quick to point out what he thought it was after the game.
An all-around lack of competitive fire.
The No. 25 ranked Volunteers fell to the Auburn Tigers 77-72, giving the Tigers their first win in February and their sixth straight win against the Vols.
“It’s really hard to talk about competitive fire when you don’t feel like you’re whole team is bringing it,” said Barnes after the game. “We’ve talked about that as much as anything, of anything we’ve coached since we’ve been at Tennessee.”
The Vols (16-7, 9-7 SEC) looked flat-footed and even lackadaisical at times, which hasn’t been the norm for this team, even in the disappointing losses.
Tennessee continued to make mental mistakes time and time again. Routine perimeter passes sailed out-of-bounds, the ball was not protected around the rim, and worst of all… in-bound passes were constantly an issue.
“That goes back to two words,” Barnes said about the team’s defensive mistakes, particularly in the second half. “Mental toughness. Competitive spirit. Competitive fire. You name it. That’s what that gets back to.”
As many games in the back half of the season have gone, Tennessee’s freshmen pulled most of the weight for the Vols.
Keon Johnson led the Big Orange in scoring and finished with 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting. His counterpart, Jaden Springer, ended the game with 20 points, five rebounds, and six assists.
Springer would echo the same sentiment as Barnes after the game when talking about the team’s current struggles.
“It’s mental,” said Springer. “And it’s effort. It’s both things. We’re just not consistent. Some guys just aren’t bringing it every day.”
Far from reassuring heading into the regular-season finale next Saturday.
The rest of the team combined for 29 points, and only six came from the bench.
Josiah-Jordan James was scoreless in his second game back from injury, John Fulkerson finished with four points for the fifth time in his last six games, and Santiago Vescovi added in the six from the bench.
“I expect our team to get better and better and better as we go on,” Barnes said following the game. “The fact is we’re not fixing the things we keep talking about.”
Auburn (12-13, 6-10 SEC) played a tougher and more aggressive game of basketball on Saturday. The Tigers bested the Vols in rebounds and second-chance points, which contributed to them commanding the lead for almost 30 minutes in the game.
Tennessee will have an entire week before playing in their final regular-season game of the year at home against Florida.
Barnes made it clear after the game that changes would have to be made. But will Tennessee’s season-long identity crisis be the downfall of this team?
“You start asking that question,” said Barnes. “What do we have to do? Do we have to make changes going forward in our program to do things?”
Tennessee will host Florida on Senior Night in Knoxville next Saturday at 12 noon E.T.