Tennessee snapped its two-game losing by beating Missouri 69-59 Tuesday night. Here are three things.
TRIPLE-J HITTING HIS STRIDE
Josiah-Jordan James seems to be rounding into form of late. He was one of six Vols who scored in double figures against Missouri and was a key piece for Tennessee’s offense as the Tigers tried to claw their way back from a four-point halftime deficit.
Altogether, he scored 11 points on 4-7 shooting from the field and nailed three of the six 3-point shots he attempted. He sank one of those 3s on Tennessee’s first possession of the second half and assisted the 3 Yves Pons hit on the Vols’ second possession after halftime. Tennessee’s four-point halftime lead jumped to 10 and forced a quick timeout from Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin.
It was a solid outing against the Tigers and more evidence of tides turning for the former five-star recruit.
One could say the early-season waters were a bit choppy for the freshman, especially on offense, as he adjusted to the college game. He didn’t score more than nine points in a game through Tennessee’s first seven contests, had a 38-percent FG percentage, a 27-percent 3-point percentage and was nearly averaging more combined turnovers and personal fouls (5.2) than he was points scored (5.6).
Despite the scoring struggles, he used his size and natural athleticism to impact the game other ways. He turned in an average of 7 rebounds, hit his free throws at an 80-percent clip and dished out nearly 2.5 assists each game to go with the combined 1.1 steals/ blocks.
But as the year’s progressed and James has settled in, his ability to knock down 3-pointers has the opened up the floor and ignited his offensive punch. He’s scored in double-digits in five of the last seven games, hit at least one 3-point shot in six of the last seven games and made three 3s three times.
I would still like to see more to-the-basket aggression from James when he’s handling the ball. He’s big and athletic, and there’s potential to use those gifts to score around the hoop. That stout build makes him an inherent mismatch for other guards in the post and a load to defend when he has momentum toward the rim.
DOUBLE-J HITTING HIS STRIDE, TOO
After the Jacksonville State game, I was ready to write off Jalen Johnson entirely. Tennessee won the game, but Johnson logged just nine minutes against a seriously over-matched opponent and missed each of the three 3-point shots he took. I don’t recall exactly, but I think at least two of them were really good looks.
Whatever — it was already disheartening that Johnson didn’t progress into the 10-15 points per game scorer and offensive complement to Bowden/ Turner that the rarely-used, optimistic side of my brain concocted in the off-season.
But then it was the third-straight outing for Johnson in which he played less than 10 minutes (he logged two minutes against Memphis and three minutes against Cincinnati) for a team playing with a bag already short a few clubs of a complete set.
“If Johnson can’t get burn on this team, it’s a wrap. Keep sitting him, play the freshmen and get them ready for next season.”
— Me, known idiot, displaying zero patience and exercising the frequently-used pessimistic side of my brain.
Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by Rick Barnes’s player development and thereby conditioned to some unrealistic expectations. Not every 3-star Barnes recruits is going to turn into an NBA player. IDK.
Tennessee fans have been waiting for any and/ or all switch(es) to flip with the talented, 6-foot-6 wing from North Carolina. We’ve heard reports from practice that Johnson can light it up, scoring from anywhere on the floor. But we’ve also heard he’s not naturally inclined to play defense, and we know Barnes isn’t having that.
Whatever is or isn’t going on, something seems to have clicked in the last few weeks. Johnson scrapped together a (former) career-high nine points, six rebounds, two assists, one turnover and zero fouls in 22 minutes against Wisconsin. He shot 3-6 from the field, 2-3 from deep and hit his only free-throw attempt. Then, he set a new season-high with 26 minutes against LSU. He didn’t score, missing his only shot attempt of the game, but he snared four rebounds, dished out two assists and didn’t commit a single turnover or personal foul.
AND THEN Johnson played the best game of his Tennessee career against Missouri Tuesday. He hit three 3-pointers in about three minutes of the first half and set a (new) career high with 11 points. He helped handle the ball late in the second half and finished the game with three rebounds, one assist, one steal, one block, one turnover and one personal foul.
“I think he’s realized if he makes — I can understand his first couple shots,” Barnes said after the game. (I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, but keep reading.)
“I thought they were just great Jalen Johnson shots. I think he had a little heat check on one of them and that’s what I don’t want him to do. I thought after that point, normally after that, he gets a lost a little bit. But I thought tonight he was really for the most part locked in defensively. He’s understanding the dirty work that has to be done on each possession.”
So, maybe the light bulb has finally come on, and maybe it’s staying on instead of doing that thing that fluorescent lights do when they flicker on and off and on and off and on and off until you eventually replace the bulb and throw the old one into a dumpster so you can watch it explode into a million pieces.
LET’S GET WEIRD
This team is kind of weird. Early in the season, it looked like a legit top-25 team even though we all knew it wasn’t. That team worked Washington and the Huskies’ 2-3 zone into a soapy lather, rinsed it off and then worked it again just for laughs. The Vols got out-rebounded that game by 11 and still won by 13 points. The same team scored 48 points on 16 made field goals and got thumped by 20 points at home against Wisconsin.
Santiago Vescovi has been an adrenaline shot straight in Vols’ chest. His second-half stretch in the Missouri game, during which he scored eight points and then turned the ball over twice all in about a minute and a half, was a sort of a microcosm for the Tennessee season as a whole. He’s brought some much-needed outside shooting and looks like he’ll be able to help fill the point-guard void left by Turner’s injury, but he’s going to make mistakes, too.
Without Uros Plavsic, there’s not a lot to work with down low. Pons has transitioned to the four spot pretty well, and Fulkerson is doing a much better job of staying out of foul trouble this season. They both look like they’ve developed some scoring prowess, something that seemed a near impossibility last year. Each has an eight-to-10 foot, back-to-the basket post game, and “Air France,” is shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range.
Pons scored in double figures all of one time last year, but this season he’s scored at least 10 points in 10 of the 14 games so far. Fulkerson is the team’s by-default starting center but hasn’t collected more than nine rebounds in a game yet.
Like I said, this team is weird. They look like a bubble team for now, but it should be a fun ride through the rest of the schedule.