Tennessee just couldn’t quite get it done Saturday against Kentucky. The Vols lost 77-64, and it was the first victory in Knoxville for the Wildcats since Rick Barnes became head coach. Here are three things.
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED
The Vols have played some real snooze-fest type games this year. And that’s not so much an indictment for this team as it is an acknowledgement of the innate gamesmanship from last season’s 31-6 team that spent a month at No. 1 looking down on the rest of the NCAA.
Admiral Schofield is gone, and so are his brash flexes, grimaces and timely, soul-snatching 3-point daggers. As fans, we miss that. We miss Jordan Bone’s electric pace and Grant Williams doing the Gator chomp, his low center of gravity and seemingly mystical faculty for turning layups into and-one three-point plays.
But that kind of juice and fervor was alive for this most recent installment of the Tennessee- Kentucky rivalry, and it made for an exciting basketball game even though the Vols couldn’t pull out the dubya. While this team is outgunned in talent, they’re a resilient bunch and we can see rays of sunshine peaking through the clouds. Doing some quick math — about 81 percent of Tennessee’s total points this season have been scored by somebody who will be on the roster next season. That’s encouraging.
I don’t mean to convey that I’m satisfied with the team’s overall 13-10 record, because I’m not and I’m sure none of you are, either. But maybe there’s some character being built with the lumps they’re taking now, and perhaps these guys are finding this team’s identity.
EVERY OBSTACLE IS AN OPPORTUNITY
Cause and effect rule the universe. A thing happens, and then another thing happens. The chain of events can sometimes be hard to trace, but play detective long enough and typically you can figure how or why that thing happened. And when things aren’t going so great, like when your basketball team is treading water in the fifth season of a coach’s tenure who’s making north of $3 million a year, sometimes it’s helpful to look at the present state, evaluate how you got there, and then reassess how you feel about the present. Events that looked bad sometimes turn out good.
Yves Pons is leading the SEC in blocks, and here’s his latest masterpiece — obliterating Ashton Hagans’s shot and also dodging the rim with his head.
Yves Pons with an incredible block pic.twitter.com/MIM5Qitzau— Jordan Dajani (@JordanDajani) February 8, 2020
But wait, there’s more. Here’s another block, and with this one I think the refs needed to get a new ball because Pons busted the seams of the old one with a volleyball spike.
He’s been doing this all season, and given his athletic gifts, I guess it isn’t so surprising. But consider this — prior to this year, Pons had 17 career blocks in 59 games.
This newfound defensive prowess came with his position change. At 6-foot-6, he’s played most on the wing before this season. But former Vols DJ Burns and Derrick Walker both left the team this past offseason while Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander both went to the NBA, so the coaches needed Pons playing in the post instead of outside the paint. Barnes missing on Burns and Walker sucks, and the team is still thin down low, but that chain of events has also resulted in Pons unlocking a skill that we didn’t really know existed.
Jordan Bone also went to the NBA after his stellar junior season, and that left the point guard duties to Lamonte Turner and incoming freshman Josiah James. Santiago Vescovi’s in-season addition was a surprise for most fans. While Turner’s career at Tennessee came to an early halt because of his shoulder injury, and James has missed the last three games nursing a hip that caused him to miss time before the season started, Vescovi has seized the opportunity laid out by the aforementioned dominoes falling.
Since James’s injury, Vescovi is notching three made 3s, 14 points, four assists and nearly two steals per game. Even better — after turning the ball over 21 times in his first three games, he’s giving it away less than two times per game over the last five contests.
Bone’s early exit, Lamonte’s injury, James’s intermittent health and even Jordan Bowden’s senior-year struggles are definitely less than ideal, but they’ve cleared the path for Vescovi’s emergence as a nifty, play=making point guard who will drill opposing teams between the eyes with the 3-ball if they leave him open.
VOLS’ BENCH HAS A FUTURE IN MAGIC
The player’s on Tennessee’s bench continued their collective uneven, season-long performance, and effectively disappeared against Kentucky Saturday. Four players who didn’t start logged minutes: Jalen Johnson (28 mins), Davonte Gaines (five mins), Olivier Nkamhoua (five mins) and Drew Pember (three mins). Johnson tallied the group’s only points of the day with a lone made 3-pointer, and Pember was the only other Vol reserve to attempt a shot against Kentucky.
Nobody for Tennessee had a great day shooting the ball, Pons’s 4-11 from the field was the highest shooting percentage for a Vol in the game, but that doesn’t really excuse the ineffectiveness of the guys on the bench.
The Wildcats got 17 points from their bench players, and 14 of those came from freshman guard Johnny Juzang. He shot 4-4 overall, 3-3 from deep and 2-2 from the free-throw line in 24 minutes.
The more of this season I watch, the less I think Gaines and Nkamhoua should even be playing. They both look like they needed a red-shirt year to gain weight and get acclimated to college basketball. But, uh, not much we can do about that now, is there?
There’s some serious talent on the way with the Vols’ 2020 recruiting class that’s fifth-best in the country. Five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson are two of the top four recruit’s all-time for Tennessee according to 24/7 Sports, but none of that really matters until next year. Tennessee needs more consistency from its bench this season if it hopes to make any post-season tournament.