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Three Things: Mississippi State

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee dropped its third straight game, losing 86 to 73 to Mississippi State. Here are three things.

SIZE DOES MATTER

Josiah James’s absence forced Uros Plavsic into the starting lineup, and on paper that looked like a decent matchup for Miss State’s size inside. But both Plavsic and Fulkerson got repeatedly worked by the Bulldog post players.

Sophomore Reggie Perry looked like the best player on the floor for most of the night, and he used his size and speed to repeatedly get positioned deep in the post. When the player it catching a post-entry pass two feet from the basket, it’s already too late. Perry was doing his work early by muscling his way near the basket before getting the ball, so that when the pass came, he could just make a turn or a pump-fake and score the ball. After the game, Rick Barnes addressed Tennessee’s problems in the paint.

“They were just determined they were going to get it there [the post],” Barnes said. “I thought John (Fulkerson) was not a factor today. He got manhandled down there. Oliver (Nkamhoua), same thing. Even Uros (Plavsic)… you can’t play behind someone when they are right at the rim. We got caught with our big guys doing that a couple times.”

The Vols got out-worked inside against Texas A&M and again against Miss State. When something like this happens once, you can just chalk it up to a bad night. But it happening again, the next game, makes you wonder if it’s the symptom of a deeper issue. In total, the Vols have been out-rebounded 84-45 in their last two contests, and that’s just not good enough.

Fulkerson led the team with five rebounds, while three players from the Bulldogs each had more than five.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy fix on the roster. Sometimes, when you’re over-matched down low, you’ll see the defense fronting the offensive post player. But that opens the backside up to cuts from the wing and can make rebounding more difficult. Keep an eye on Tennessee’s post players the next few games to see what, if anything, the coaches will have them doing differently.

GOD BLESS SANTIAGO VESCOVI

The Flyin’ Uruguayan was a shot in the arm for the lackluster Tennessee offense Saturday night. He’s inconsistent, which is to be expected from a freshman, but man when he’s good, he’s real good. His shot was falling against Miss State, 6-14 overall and 4-9 from 3, and that opens up the opposing defense enough for him to slither into the lane and make plays from there.

The turnovers are a problem, but it seems like they are becoming less of an issue the more comfortable he gets. He had five TOs against Vanderbilt, but since then he’s had games of two, zero, two and three. That’s tangible improvement and a good sign for the rest of the season.

On the flipside, while his turnovers are down, his assists are up. He makes some, well, maybe ill-advised passes, like the behind-the-back pass in the clip above, but that flare is something you have to nurture. Sure, it’s just got to be reigned in sometimes, but that’s okay. It also leads to plays like this, where he escapes the double team and hits Pons for an easy dunk.

It’s going to be a rocky finish to the season. The schedule only gets tougher, and the Vols are struggling right now. But Vescovi will keep getting better, and that’s at least entertaining, right?

A STORM IS COMING

At 12-9, Tennessee currently sits seventh in the SEC standings and 65th in Ken Pomeroy’s overall rankings. KenPom’s numbers don’t have any bearing on the NCAA’s selections for the tournament, but they do give you a decent idea of where the Vols sit relative to the rest of the teams in the country.

That’s not a terrible place for Tennessee to be at, considering change has been the only constant in the Vols’ roster and the actual absence of Lamonte Turner coupled with the relative absence of Jordan Bowden. But as tough a go as it’s been, there’s no reprieve on the horizon.

Tennessee has ten games remaining in the regular season schedule, and a home game against Vanderbilt is the only one against a team with a losing record. The Vols get two games against 13th-ranked Kentucky, two games against 17th-ranked Auburn and two games against Arkansas. The Razorbacks aren’t currently ranked in the top-25, but they’re 16-5 and rank 14th in the country in points allowed per 100 possessions.

Barnes seems to have Coach Cal’s number — he’s 4-0 against Kentucky at home and 6-4 overall, but Bruce Pearl and Auburn have been a bit of a thorn in Tennessee’s side as they beat the Vols twice last season, including a 20-point thumping in the SEC Tournament.

Most have written off Tennessee’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament this year, and although those predictions may be premature it’s likely they end up accurate. This team is struggling at the most inopportune of times, and with the remaining schedule being so tough, a late-season rally and tournament birth seems far fetched.