A Saturday night showdown between Tennessee and Kansas had the makings going a few different ways, after watching their last two games.
One thing was clear from Tennessee in the first half, they came to play and weren’t going to stop shooting.
It’s no secret that the Vols have had a few games of rough shooting, but if the first half was any indication, this would be a good night.
The Vols had a new starting lineup for the first time this season, as Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson started together. It didn’t take long to see how this duo would pay off with the other starting five.
Tennessee started the game 3-4 from the field and 1-1 from behind the perimeter. This was just an appetizer, as the Vols defense held Kansas scoreless in the first few minutes while drawing a shot clock violation.
Santiago Vescovi had five quick points for the Vols, before checking out for Josiah-Jordan James. It was obvious from the start that the freshman duo could hut the Jayhawks on the defensive end, and they didn’t disappoint.
The Vols were shooting 64% at the under twelve break, as they led 17-8. As Kansas continued to have trouble with their shot, the Vols took advantage.
The Jayhawks were shooting just 22% from the field and 0% from the perimeter, the Vols defense was putting in work.
As the defensive side continued to bring it, Tennessee continued to work the inside-out game on the offensive end. After back-to-back baskets from Pons and Fulkerson, Kansas was forced into a timeout with 5:15 remaining in the first half.
The freshman duo of Springer and Johnson had a combined 9 points in the first half. The Vols continued to force Kansas into bad looks and open paint. Tennessee opened up a double-digit lead and held it through the first half.
At halftime, the Vols had built up a 40-26 lead, thanks to shooting 59% FG and 71% from the perimeter. Tennessee had 20 points in the paint and was led by Yves Pons, who had 10 points. Kansas was held to 27% FG and 8% from three.
The first half was all Tennessee and deservedly so.
As the Vols took the court for the second half, they were looking to take advantage of their shooting and not allow the Jayhawks to breathe.
Tennessee had things rolling early in the 2nd half, as they went on a 9-0 to extend the lead to 56-35.
It should be noted how different this team looks with Jaden Springer on the court and driving the basket. The attention he brings easily draws a double team, letting him find the open man, which happened numerous times.
Even Olivier Nkamhoua got in on the action, with 4 points, as the clock read 13:12 in the 2nd half. Rick Barnes spoke about the increased confidence from Nkamhoua over the last month.
“I think Olivier is getting better. Moreso, I think it’s the way he seems to be a little bit more relaxed. I talked to him last night about his job is to play defense thorough. We want him to take open shots. Now, the first one he took was not a very good shot, then it came right back to him and he shot it quick and they were backing off, which we knew they would. We talked about that. The reason I took him out I said ‘hey, you’re supposed to be a defensive guy.”
As Victor Bailey was fouled while shooting a three-point shot with 12:50 remaining in the game, it started to become very obvious the Vols were on their way to a big win.
The lead was stretched out to 63-40 at the under twelve break. as the Vols had 28 points in the paint and were out-rebounding the Jayhawks 30-15.
Simply put, the Vols were playing through their best players and drawing a double-team on almost every possession.
As Tennessee continued to move the ball around and inside the perimeter, Kansas found even more trouble defensively.
The Vols finally figured out how to use all their weapons at once.
The open looks haven’t been a problem for Tennessee this season, it’s been about finishing, especially around the basket.
At the 7:24 mark of the 2nd half, the Vols had 14 second-chance points, while Kansas had zero. That should show the amount of effort the Vols put into paint play tonight, adding to the fact the Vols weren’t giving away easy rebounds.
As goes the rotation for Tennessee, it has kept Victor Bailey Jr. out of the starting lineup, though if you look at the 2nd half box score, it doesn’t seem to bother him.
As Bailey had 11 points at the 5:47 mark, all in the 2nd half, the effort was noticed by head coach Rick Barnes, who gave him the ole fist bump while coming off the court.
“We expect him to continue to understand open shots and what that’s about. Tonight, I thought he was locked in, and I’m saying that without really seeing the whole thing again, but I thought he was locked in.”
The Vols were getting production from multiple playmakers, finally.
As Yves Pons dealt with what looked to be an ankle injury, Kansas tried to take advantage by knocking down a few shots. But the damage was already done, thanks to the Vols shooting and inside-out game.
At the 3:13 mark, Tennessee led 76-56, with four players in double-digit scoring.
But what continued to be so obvious to everyone in the arena was the attention Jaden Springer would draw with the ball.
As Springer entered the starting lineup on Saturday night, the Vols found themselves a plethora of different options to make the opposing team nervous.
Who were they going to defend and what kind of separation would teams allow against this active Tennessee group?
These are questions opposing teams will have to answer if the Vols can build off this win and keep up the production around the rim.
On a night where Tennessee needed to put together a complete performance on both ends of the court, they didn’t hold back against the Jayhawks.
Tonight’s performance showed fans and folks around the country what this squad is capable of when they get their shots to fall, as Rick Barnes discussed postgame.
“I think guys are taking shots. I think that’s a big key when guys take open shots. I think it’s really important. I think we have too many guys that work hard at shooting, that have been turning down shots that lead to turnovers.”
The Vols finished off the Jayhawks 80-61 and it felt worse than the score would reflect.
Tennessee had seven players with seven points or more. They held Kansas to 38% shooting and zero second-chance points.
Simply put, this was a dominating performance and one that Tennessee fans have been waiting for.
We’ll see what Rick Barnes wants to do with this starting lineup, but I imagine he’ll keep things the same if they continue to bring this kind of effort.
“I thought it played out well. A couple of weeks back we thought we were moving in that direction because when Jaden got hurt it slowed him down. This week in practice they got practice together but I thought Josiah, Olivier Nkamhoua and Victor Bailey all played well off the bench. I would say it worked and they combined for 21 points. I’m not sure about how many turnovers they had combined, maybe five or six but that’s what they have to cut down on.”
The Vols went toe to toe with Kansas tonight and sent them home with a blowout loss, which never seemed close.
I’d say this performance was just what the doctor ordered, as the Vols were looking for a spark to the 2nd half of the SEC schedule.
The Vols will now enter a four game stretch where they play 3 out of 4 on the road. Tennessee showed tonight that they have the ability to be the dominant team that folks were singing the praises of before the season.
Next up, a trip to Oxford on Tuesday.
All Images Courtesy Of Tennessee Athletic Communications.