For some long and uncomfortable stretches, this looked and felt like the Alabama game in Knoxville two Saturdays ago. Texas A&M, a strong defensive team all year, sat back in their zone and dared the Vols to beat them with the three. The Aggies clogged the lane and were the first team in conference play to really utilize size against Tennessee on the glass. A&M finished +7 on the glass led by Jalen Jones, who had 18 points and 9 rebounds.
Tennessee stayed in it in the first half by hitting all of their free throws and getting a huge shooting day from Kevin Punter, who made his first five threes. But A&M's two point halftime lead swelled to 17 in less than eight minutes. During that stretch the Vols got another Punter three and a Josh Richardson jumper, but shot just 25% overall and turned the ball over three times.
When other Vols finally started warming up from that point, Tennessee's defense still struggled with Alex Caruso and A&M's press break, which was as good as I've seen anyone do against the Vols this year. You can tell Billy Kennedy has seen this movie before from Donnie Tyndall. The Aggies shot 48.1% for the day and 64% in the second half.
Tennessee didn't quit, rallying from down 13 with five minutes to play to having the ball down just five with 1:20 to go. Kevin Punter attacked the rim, and on replay basket interference should have been called on Texas A&M as an Aggie player touched the ball as Punter's layup was still on the rim. But alas, the Vols didn't get the whistle and A&M made five of its final six free throws to keep the Vols just out of reach with a 67-61 final.
This team is going to have some offensive droughts, and I'm sure Tyndall doesn't want his squad having to take 29 threes. But Tennessee was also far too vulnerable on the defensive end today, especially in the second half, making it too easy on A&M to build and then keep the lead. That's the piece that can't fall apart, even when life is very frustrating on the offensive end, or the Vols won't be able to keep up.
Tennessee falls to 12-6 (4-2), now beaten twice at home in front of big crowds. The Vols go back on the road for the rematch with Arkansas Tuesday night, then get Bruce Pearl's return next Saturday in Knoxville. With such a young and thin team, a key question becomes whether these Vols will continue to get better, or if they'll hit the wall at some point. Fayetteville will have no mercy on the tired. You also have to wonder how many more teams are going to throw a zone defense at Tennessee after seeing such similar struggles.
But then, as was the case after Alabama, maybe a faster, more open pace against Arkansas will be just what the doctor ordered for Tennessee. The season rolls on Tuesday night.