Oh, man. We have hoops again. How sweet it is. Tennessee beat Colorado 56-47 in the Vols’ first game of the season, and here are three things.
Outside of Vescovi for half the season and Jordan Bowden sometimes, Tennessee’s backcourt wasn’t that great last season. Rick Barnes addressed that need in the offseason by signing two 5-star guards (Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson) to go with the newly eligible Victor Bailey, Jr.
The stacked backcourt showed some positive early returns against Colorado Tuesday evening by scoring a collective 37 points out of the Vols 56-point total. To no real surprise, it was Santiago Vescovi leading the charge with 11 points while hitting 3-4 from deep and adding a team-leading five assists to go with two rebounds and two steals. As vital as he was to the offense by scoring the ball, he was just as important as the team’s lead guard and main offensive facilitator.
Scovi to Keon — to easy pic.twitter.com/cCoIludnPU— The Nick and Roll (@_NicoSuave_) December 9, 2020
He makes that pass look effortless, but even with Keon Johnson ooping your alley that’s a tough pass to put on the money.
Colorado hit the Vols with a 2-3 for signigicant portions of the game, and Vescovi looked like the only guy in the backcourt who could throw a decent post-entry pass. That’s gotta change. It can be Springer or Johnson or Bailey or Josiah James — I don’t care who it is, but one of those cats is going to have to get comfortable initiating the offense.
All of these guys showed flashes: Bailey showed off his 3-ball with perfect form in the first half by hitting two 3s, but he finished the game with the same eight points he had at halftime. I can see why the Oregon folks called him a streaky shooter.
Springer also hit two 3s for Tennessee, and while Johnson didn’t hit a shot from deep, his innate athleticism was on display on both ends of the court — either being an absolute pest on defense and causing some turnovers or by going way up to finish the lob from Vescovi. Johnson also finished with five turnovers, which is at least two or three to many, but he absolutely showed spurts of the future NBA Lottery pick that he’s currently projected.
Need Some Forward Progress
So, yes, the guards played well. But Tennessee struggled to ever put Colorado down for the count because the big guys were struggling.
Fulkerson tied Vescovi for the team’s leader in scoring with 11 points, but he hit just four of his 10 shot attempts and accounted for just three rebounds. Pons’s night was uglier: two points on 1-9 shooting and NO BLOCKS, UM WUT. He did have 10 rebounds, far and away the most on the team, so that’s good. But James and he are the only ones to get passing grades for rebounding the ball (James had six — he’s such a good rebounder for his size/ position). EJ Anosike had just four boards and four points on 1-6 shooting from the field.
Barnes talked several times this offseason about how Tennessee was going to absolutely figure out a way to rebound the ball better, and while this was just one game and too small of a sample size to make any sort of determination about, it’s still troubling that the Vols got outrebounded in every category.
Anosike needs to be better, and while I love John Fulkerson with all my heart, it’s not fair to Pons to expect him to play rim defender and expect him to also snag all the rebounds. Fulky has to get more active on the glass. That’s really all there is to it. Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic each logged time, 9 and one minutes respectively, but neither managed to grab even one board when he was on the floor. Just can’t have that either.
BORN (with no) IDENTITY
As the season progresses, I’m going to play close attention to where this team ends up hanging its hat. Most of Barnes’s teams are defense first groups, omitting the 2018-2019 Track Meet BasketVols who averaged scoring somewhere around 90 points per game.
Vescovi isn’t really an athletic match for Jordan Bone whose break-neck pace really fueled that rendition of Tennessee’s offense. Vescovi is more of a halfcourt play-maker, using his deft body control and good angles to create offense.
Now with Pons and Fulkerson, you’ve got bigs who will run the floor, and with all the lanky bodies and good athletes on the perimeter, this team has the necessary ingredients for a squad that makes scoring the basketball really tough on opposing teams. For instance —Tennessee had 12 steals against Colorado, and I specifically noticed Keon and Vescovi each slap a few balls away that ended up as turnovers for the Buffalos. Just for a point of reference: Tennessee recorded more than 12 steals just once last season (13 against Alabama).
I don’t want to be overly critical because 1) we got the dub and 2) it’s been a weird offseason and the guys haven’t gotten to play as much as we would have liked, but the defensive rotations left quite a bit to be desired tonight. Springer and Johnson got blown by a couple of times and there wasn’t anybody home to help over. That’s just a small kink that will likely work itself out, but if the Vols hope to become a defensively-minded team, it will damn sure have to get figured.
As the schedule currently stands, Tennessee plays Cincinnati at home on December 12th. Let’s hope the team stays safe, and we can all get some basketball in over the next couple weeks.