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Tennessee Basketball: Burning Questions for the NCAA Tournament

Under-the-radar factors to look for down the road.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Auburn Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It’s do-or-die time for Tennessee basketball. The whole season has been leading up to this point. The rankings, the accolades, the reputation, it means little if the Volunteers can’t deliver in the NCAA tournament. Very few expect a national championship banner to hang from the rafters, but most expect them to get pretty close to it. Anything less than the Sweet 16 would be extremely disappointing.

Instead of repeating what we already know, we tried to highlight new storylines as the tournament approaches. Not the same ones that have been beaten to death over the course of the season (Did you know Grant Williams is actually good?)

These are the burning questions that Tennessee must answer if they actually want to complete the goals they set out for at the beginning of the year.

How Much Will They Need Kyle Alexander?

If Tennessee needs a big man to step up, it has to be Alexander. Fulkerson is a known quantity and Derrick Walker is not ready (and might never be ready). The only paint presence that has earned extended minutes is Alexander, thanks to his rebounding and defense.

Lost in the shuffle is the development that Alexander has actually become a well rounded player. He’s not valuable enough to carry much of a load, but he is certainly more reliable of a scorer and more sound a defender than Fulkerson.

The tournament draw will decide how much Alexander will be needed. If there’s a team with a skilled big man known for his offensive capability, it would be almost impossible to slow him down without Alexander in the game.

Will Yves Pons Have A Role?

Arguably the most disappointing development during an overall fantastic season was Yves Pons’ decline from “emerging sixth man” to “afterthought”. Not all of that is on his actual play—Pons’ face injury in the beginning of February was a set back for a player who needed all the time he could get. Those types of injuries can also have a mental effect, where a player starts to avoid contact or intentionally slow down. Two things that detract from what Pons brought as a defensive stalwart and impressive athlete.

Yet Pons had a particularly bad stretch in mid-January before his injury occurred. For as good a defender that he is, Pons simply doesn’t do enough on offense to justify extended court time. Tennessee found itself struggling to align its defense, and Pons did not help that effort. When you can’t score more than a few points and your biggest asset isn’t particularly helpful, you won’t play.

Unless Barnes has intentionally held him back to prepare him for the tournament, Pons has moved to the bottom of the guard rotation.

Has the Defense Been Thoroughly Fixed?

The eye test matches the numbers in this regard. Last season, Tennessee’s defense finished 6th overall in Ken Pomeroy’s rating system. This season, they are primed to enter the tournament with the 34th ranked defense. That’s still good, but it is also obvious that they took a step back this year. Why is that?

There’s a lot of reasons, but the most obvious one has to do with the interior defense. Tennessee doesn’t have many options when it comes to a primary defender in the paint. Thankfully Kyle Alexander has begun to step up in recent contests, though he will need to keep up the good play throughout the tournament. It will also require John Fulkerson to stay out of foul trouble and Derrick Walker to regain confidence.

Tennessee also has a tendency to over pursue at the top of the key. They were somewhat contained against Auburn, but the times they did over pursue, Auburn made them pay for it. Guys like Lamonte Turner needs to trust in the system and reel it in when it comes to that type of defense.

Were the two Auburn games setbacks, or a glitch? Only time will tell. Tennessee’s defense started to look like its old self after the LSU loss—right up until Auburn became lethal from behind the arc. The Vols need to use the extra time to shore up their defensive improvement.

Will Tennessee Go Small-Ball?

The absolute best lineup for putting the ball in the basket consists of something like this:

Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield.

It’s the definition of “small ball”, and it’s also a very volatile group. Fans saw both the good and the bad during the first Auburn game. The Tigers were pushing as much as they could on the three point line and trying to launch ahead of Tennessee. Despite that, the Volunteers stayed ahead for much of the game with their guard lineup. That is encouraging for their tournament chances, because it’s a good bet that a couple teams will try and throw the same looks at Tennessee. If Tennessee can respond in kind, they’ll gain steam.

The bad part was also on display with the turnovers and inefficiency. Turner was especially frustrating with his mistakes, though it needs to be pointed out that plenty of players were taking ill-advised three pointers when a simple drive to the basket would suffice. An experienced team cannot get caught up in the swing of the game like that.

Still, if the Volunteers need a scoring burst or have to go toe-to-toe with another small ball team, they will need to try it out again.