KNOXVILLE – As quickly as it’s 19-point lead melted away, two weeks worth of sound basketball escaped Tennessee on February 4.
Tennessee had built legitimate hype towards a tournament bid. The team blew past Mississippi State, Kansas State and Auburn by ten or more points each. On January 24, the Vols outscored No. 4 Kentucky, one of five UK losses.
On this day, Mississippi State recovered 21 offensive rebounds and finished Tennessee off on a 25 to 9 run. Two weeks prior and one-hundred miles north, UT surrendered a 13-point lead to Ole Miss. The Rebels out-rebounded the Vols by eight. In a quick conference tournament exit, Tennessee brought in just 29 rebounds.
“We created expectations and then we didn’t finish like we needed to,” Rick Barnes said after a two-point SEC Tournament elimination. “This time next year we want to be in a position where we’re a postseason team.”
Barnes is scheduled to coach his 1,000th game January 13 against Texas A&M. His 31st team as head coach enters with a low valuation, picked to finish 13th in the SEC. But this season’s roster features six players listed at six foot seven inches or taller. For each of the previous two seasons, UT had just three players listed above that height.
Returners Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams, John Fulkerson and Jalen Johnson accompany true freshmen Zach Kent and Derrick Walker as the team’s skyscrapers.
“You can’t be a good defensive team if you don’t rebound the ball,” Barnes said last month. “That’s become a point of emphasis.”
Failing to close out defensive possessions, Barnes said, translated to inability to close out games. The Vols dropped seven of their last 10, leveling off the season record at 16-16.
Listed as a forward, six foot eight inch Walker will be expected to fill several roles this year. He averaged eight rebounds per game during UT’s three-game European stretch. He double-doubled on August 4th with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Barnes and Associate Head Coach Rob Lanier also say Walker has the capability and agency to bring the ball up the floor.
That versatility is echoed across the team’s makeup. Admiral Schofield, six foot five inches, played on the block at times for Tennessee last season. The 2017-18 edition allows him to compete at a level more congruent with his size: the wing.
“The makeup of our team two years ago and last year made it necessary for Admiral to help us along the front line,” said Lanier. “We’re trying to do stuff offensively more conducive for him to be successful in that particular role because we need him on the floor.”
Even if he is hanging around the three-point line, Schofield hardly dismisses the importance of rebounds. Last year he came down with more than four per game.
“Defense and rebounding is all mental,” Schofield said. “When I see the ball come off the rim, I don’t care how I’ve got to get that ball, I’ve got to get it. We have that toughness that we need for rebounding and defense.”
Barnes said Wednesday night that RS-Freshman and Kingsport, Tenn. native John Fulkerson has been cleared by the medical staff and will play in Thursday’s exhibition against Carson-Newman. Fulkerson started six games last year before a broken wrist and dislocated elbow ended his season.
Junior transfer Chris Darrington is dealing with an ankle sprain and will not play, Barnes said on the Vol Network’s “Vol Calls.”
True Freshman Yves Pons is questionable for the exhibition with an ankle sprain, too.
Barnes: “Our big key right now is to get those nicks cleared up as much as we can.”
Tennessee opens the season next Friday at home against Presbyterian.