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Breaking down Tennessee’s performance against Murray State

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Here’s what stood out.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Asheville at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee fought its way back from a 12-point first-half deficit to drop Murray State 82-63 on Tuesday night. Here are three things.

SENIOR MOMENTS, PART II

I was critical of Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner after the UNC Asheville game, and I think it was fair criticism. The Vols need more from them, and against Murray State, they got it.

Bowden scored 18 of his career-high 26 points in the second half, including 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions that grew Tennessee’s lead from five to 11 with less than five minutes left in the game.

Foul trouble limited him to just eight minutes in the first half — they were cheap fouls (ticky-tack, silly) that nearly had expensive consequences — and the offense looked a bit uninspired without him. Yves Pons almost single-handedly kept the Vols within striking distance, but we’ll come back to Pons further down in the story.

Turner was held scoreless in the first half, but he had six assists, zero turnovers and looked like he heard the criticisms from the sloppy performance against UNC Asheville. For most of his career, he’s played like shooting guard in a point guard’s body; the offense ran through Admiral Schofield or Grant Williams, and Turner could just play off them and rain in jumpers.

But against Murray State, particularly in the second half, the offense flowed through Turner’s hands. He finished the game with 14 assists, no turnovers and one foul. It wasn’t a good shooting night for him — just 2-12 from the field — but we saw the maturation of a true lead guard.

DEFENSE (clap clap) DEFENSE (clap clap)

Two seasons ago, Tennessee was picked to finish next-to-last in the SEC and ended up winning 26 games and the regular-season SEC title. That team’s identity was tied to its defense.

Last year, the Vols played so-so defense most of the season and still won 31 games because the offense was just lethal. That won’t happen again this year.

This Tennessee team doesn’t have the firepower to run teams out of the gym like last year’s squad had. So, once again, the Vols will have to hang their hats on their willingness and ability to defend at a high level. That’s going to be difficult with several young guys logging significant minutes.

Against the Racers, the Vols struggled getting hands in the shooters’ faces. Murray State went 8-14 from 3-point range in the first half, and most of those attempts were open looks.

“Those eight in the first half, their two best players got six of them,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “We were very upset at halftime with that because we work every day on closing out with vision — taking away vision.”

Let’s look and see what Barnes was getting at.

This is a screen shot from the first 3-point shot Murray State hit.

This shot came off of a down screen. Josiah James is No. 5 in white running around the screen toward the Tennessee bench where Jaiveon Eaves already has the ball at his waist and is rising up to take the shot. James isn’t close enough, and Eaves has a wide-open look that he nails.

(Note: Eaves is a transfer from Evansville, the team that just beat Kentucky.)

The next screenshot shows Tevin Brown about to hit his first 3-pointer of the game. Brown is the Racers’ leading scorer and attempts more than seven 3-point shots per game.

This is Brown on the catch. Sure, he’s a willing shooter, but there are 14 seconds left on the shot clock and he’s at about NBA 3-point depth. So, I guess I can understand Bowden giving him a little breathing room.

At the release, Bowden has covered some ground and ends up having a hand in Brown’s space. In hindsight, maybe Bowden should have crowded Brown more on the catch, but in the film room I’d say this is one Barnes can live with.

The saying goes, “A picture is worth 1,000 words,” but this picture can really be summed up with just one word —

Shit.

This is KJ Williams, who is Murray State’s second-leading scorer so far this season, and it’s James again for Tennessee trailing on defense. James spent most of this possession several feet away from his man and didn’t close quickly enough to get a good contest up.

I could go on, but you get the “picture.” The Vols tightened up defensively in the second half, and Murray State scored just 19 points in the final 20 minutes. That’s the kind of defense Tennessee will have to play this season if it wants to win some basketball games.

YVES PONS IS A BASKETBALL GOD

Pons followed up his career-high 15 points against UNC Asheville by setting a new career high with 17 points against Murray State. He played in 38 of the game’s 40 minutes, hit eight of his 10 shots (including three of his four 3-point attempts) and led the team with four blocked shots.

For the season, he’s shooting 83 percent inside the arc and 67 percent from 3-point range. He’s second on the team with 17 points per game and he leads the team with a 3.5 block per-game average.

The sample size is too small.

His numbers will come back down to earth.

Both of the above statements are probably true. But man, he has been fun to watch. I imagine the offensive numbers will indeed normalize, but Barnes has praised Pons’ offseason work ethic so maybe the improvement in his shooting is for real. I really, really hope so.

His shot-blocking is just glorious to behold. He’s a legitimate game-changing rim protector. I have a hard time finding the ability to accurately convey how good he is at blocking shots from the weak side. He’s like a lion, stalking his prey and then ferociously pouncing on a young, unsuspecting antelope.

Either way, let’s enjoy the ride as long as it lasts.