Tennessee blasted Appalachian State Tuesday, toppling the Mountaineers on the Summitt 79-38. Here are three things.
Put the “D,” in Defense
The Volunteer defense allowed just 38 points against the Mountaineers, the lowest opponent’s point total since Rick Barnes became coach at Tennessee.
The Vols just absolutely stifled any hopes App. State had at scoring the ball. The Mountaineers hit just 12 of their 43 field goal attempts, and while I didn’t look that stat up, I’d say that, too, is a record for the Rick Barnes/ Tennessee era of basketball. The Vols racked up 13 steals, 18 turnovers and produced 19 points off the Appalachian State miscues.
The stats are pretty, and we all love looking at them, but what about this Tennessee team makes them so crippling to opposing offenses?
Surface level — each of the rotation players, the starting five plus the three or four others who will get minutes, are all relatively big guys with long frames who are athletic. That may seem silly, but look at just the backcourt. Vescovi is 6-3. Bailey is 6-4. Josiah-Jordan James is 6-6. Jaden Springer is 6-4, and Keon Johnson is 6-5.
That sort of length on the wing occupies space that the ball would otherwise move through freely. All the sudden, the offensive player looks up, and all he sees are big hands and long arms swiping at the ball. That’s got to be incredibly disconcerting.
Further, defense is about effort as much as it is about skill or talent. Good athletes have the capability to play good defense if they’re dead-set on doing so. With Coach Barnes, the guys don’t really have much other option. He talked all offseason about how good Springer and Johnson were as individual defenders, but they’ve both fit in seamlessly to Tennessee’s team defensive concepts.
This is as good a time as any to touch on Yves Pons, who’s rim-protecting proficiency erases buckets that may have been given up to opposing guards beating their men off the dribble and strikes fear into would-be fast-breakers who think they’ve got an easy two points on a run out off a turnover.
We could spend hundreds and hundreds of words on this topic, but for now, we’ll move on. I’m trying to be better about my wordiness.
Tennessee’s Fearsome Freshmen Twosome
Those waiting for Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson’s coming-out party were satisfied with Tuesday’s game — the five-star duo combined for 18 points on 8-15 shooting from the field. Each made eye-popping plays: Springer displayed elite body control on a couple shots at the rim, one up-and-under reverse layup and a deuce where he absorbed the defensive contact and hung in the air, suspended, waiting for the defense to clear so he could drop the ball in over the rim.
Johnson’s offense is still playing catch-up a bit, it seems (he was just 2-7 from the field) but his defense and athleticism scream at you from the TV screen. He led the team with four steals in 23 minutes. This particular play is outstanding: quick, decisive hands, then the ball skills to go full-court at full speed while changing directions twice is quite simply ridiculous.
KEON JOHNSON FOREVER!— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) December 16, 2020
“MY GOD, A FRESHMAN!” pic.twitter.com/FfpAZgWK17
Another view and another shameless plug to my Twitter account (@_nicosuave_ get at me):
The Best of the Rest
I couldn’t in good conscience not mention the rest of the guys here — Triple J had another wonderful, all-around game that is likely to become the norm for him. He’s skilled for his size, and uses that to be a unilaterally good and important contributor. He had 11 points on 3-3 shooting from deep with eight rebounds (five offensive!), two assists and a block. He just stuffs stats. It’s what he does.
Victor Bailey got back on track after he followed his eight points in five minutes against Colorado by going just 3-9 from the field against Cincinnati. The sweet-shooting lefty hit just one of his five attempts from deep, but, man, the one he hit was smooth. He’s got the purest shooting stroke on the team, and even though the shots weren’t really falling from deep, he still managed 13 points on 6-14 shooting overall.
Fulkerson and EJ Anosike were solid down low — with Fulky accounting for 12 points, five rebounds and being his usual, pesky self by adding two blocks and three steals. Anosike played 17 minutes and snagged six rebounds, but he still looked uncomfortable with the ball in his hands underneath the basket. Other than more time, I don’t know if there’s a fix for Anosike’s apparent yips. He might not add much other than putbacks offensively, but it’ll come with more time.
Appalachian State looked overmatched from the jump, but this was good for Tennessee to really see itself click before SEC play begins at the end of this month. The Vols play three more games before Christmas (It’s like we get Christmas four times), so buckle up. I’m extremely excited to see what’s in store for this squad for the rest of the year.