Okay, so listen. I know everybody is caught up in football, and most likely, nobody wants to rehash the basketball team’s lackluster performance against the Gators. But, this is what I do, and it’s important to zero in on the bad games, even though it’s not as fun, because you learn arguably more about the team in losses than you do in wins.
(Brief aside: UT hired Danny White to be its new AD. Great, great, great hire. The man hires really, really good coaches — it’s just kinda what he does. I only somewhat hold it against him that he’s Florida men’s basketball Head Coach Mike White’s brother. Nobody gets to choose his or her family; just ask mine.)
Tennessee got hammered by Florida Tuesday night <score redacted>, and here are three things.
I mentioned this in my postgame story and wanted to flesh some of that out a little more thoroughly in this space.
Tennessee’s guards were atrocious against Florida Tuesday night. The Vols’ 49-point offensive output was easily the worst of the season, but it’s not just because of the season-low point total. The offense set new season lows with 17 made field goals and a god-awful 29-percent shooting performance. Nobody on the team had even a remotely decent night, save Fulkerson comma John, but the Vols’ backcourt had an especially poor showing.
The starting guards — Santiago Vescovi, Keon Johnson, Josiah-Jordan James (two, three, guard, small forward, whatever) — and Victor Bailey combined for 25 points on 8-38 (21 percent) shooting. Here’s the breakdown:
Vescovi: seven points, 2-8 (1-6 from 3) shooting, 2-2 from the FT line, three rebounds, three steals, one assist, one TO.
Johnson: eight points, 3-10 (0-1 from 3) shooting, 2-7 from the FT line, two rebounds, zero steals, three assists, three TOs.
James: five points, 2-8 (1-3 from 3) shooting, zero FT attempts, five rebounds, zero steals, zero assists, two TOs.
Bailey: four points, 1-12 (0-6 from 3) shooting, 2-6 from the FT line, two rebounds, zero steals, one assist, five TOs.
You guys know me — I’m no math whiz, but by my count that 11 turnovers to eight made baskets. I don’t really like to speak in absolutes, but I feel comfortable saying that there’s pretty much a zero-percent chance to win a game with that sort of stat coming from your guards.
Trying to pick the worst game is kinda like following me around the golf course and trying to decide which shot was the poorest — they’re all just really bad.
But in this case, they’re all bad for different reasons because of what each particular player usually brings to the table, and what the team subsequently misses when that doesn’t happen.
Vescovi and Bailey are Tennessee’s most reliable and only real, consistent threats from 3-point range. They account for 3.6 of UT’s average 5.9 (or nearly 70 percent) makes from deep per game, and they went 1-12 from deep against the Gators.
Johnson hasn’t found his stroke from outside yet (22-percent season average from deep), but he’s good going to the basket and athletic enough to find creative ways to finish at the rim despite a defender in reasonably good position. He was 2-8 from 15 feet and in.
James is 6-foot-6, athletic and has the build of a college football running back. His zero free-throw attempts against the Gators hint at what could be a more systemic issue in his mindset on offense; there are games when he doesn’t show much aggression scoring the ball. He does so many different things well that I can understand scoring taking a backseat on his personal, game-to-game to-do list, but when the offense is having a night like it did against Florida, it would be nice to see James a little more assertive with the ball in his hands.
The Vols were without freshman guard Jaden Springer, and Head Coach Rick Barnes said the guard hadn’t practiced since the Vanderbilt game and wasn’t even a full participant in Monday’s shootaround prior to the game against Florida. Springer played about five minutes against Alabama, and Tennessee lost. He played zero minutes against Florida, and Tennessee lost. Trend...?
Vols played “efense,” against Gators; No D.
Tennessee’s defense, particularly on the perimeter was U-G-L-Y, they ain’t go no allbi, uhh-glee. I’ve sorta started doing my clips in a Twitter thread before posting them here, and I never get to include all the ones from there on here. So follow me on Twitter (@_nicosuave_) as sometimes it leads to some good basketball discussion.
Specifically, Keon Johnson really struggled against the Gators. Florida shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and scored 42 points in the paint on a team that’s been no. 1 or no. 2 in national team defense for most of the year. Defense on the perimeter is of paramount importance because when that breaks down, it forces the rest of the defense to play catch up. Johnson’s errors were frequent and costly.
This is from Florida's first bucket of the game. Keon got backdoored, and it was ugly. pic.twitter.com/4DaK7afqKf— mad decent ™ (@_NicoSuave_) January 22, 2021
Play this video and watch Keon’s head/ face. He spends nearly the entire time watching the player with the ball — “ball-watching,” as they say. I have no issue with watching the ball, I mean, players have to. But, the defender has to be watching the ball and also keeping tabs on his man, or the offense catches the him sleeping, even for just a split second and it’s two points so freaking quick. Keon gets caught looking at the dribbler at the wrong time.
next possession -- Tennessee was switching of a lot of ball screens, and here Keon doesn't switch and then spends the rest of the possession 100 percent lost. He hangs near the rim while UF catches the Vols mid rotation for a wide open 3 (it misses) pic.twitter.com/ygwLH8kqrG— mad decent ™ (@_NicoSuave_) January 22, 2021
(This tweet includes some accidental audio of my dad vehemently disagreeing with something — but he’s vulgar so be warned. I found it hilarious but if that sort of language bothers you, please mute it and know it wasn’t intentional on my behalf. My apologies.)
The Vols’ ball-screen defense was quite befuddling. The strategy changes from game-to-game and sometimes from possession-to-possession. Keon gets lost at the screen and stays lost for the rest of the possession. Rick Barnes minces no words on this topic in the post-game press conference:
“Keon (Johnson) got lit up tonight defensively because he doesn’t understand ball-screen defense,” Barnes said. “Ouch,” Nick said.
Keon spends most of this possession lost, again. He catches up in time to not fight thru the ball screen, which gives the UF guy the angle. Maybe the Vols were supposed to switch, maybe they weren't. WHO KNOWS. pic.twitter.com/IQKkF22mLF— mad decent ™ (@_NicoSuave_) January 22, 2021
I think Tennessee was switching here, but for whatever reason, Vescovi doesn’t switch and Keon doesn’t recover. Prior to that, Johnson’s lost his man in the corner and is just hanging around in the paint, again. Losing a guy happens sometimes — I get it. But it speaks to the possibility that Johnson’s head just wasn’t all the way in this game. Eye-Dee-Kay.
I don't know if Keon was expecting James to hedge on the ball screen... But when the screen comes, Keon hesitates & gives UF leverage to the mid of the floor. that hesi is enough to put him on the offense's back hip for the drive to the bucket pic.twitter.com/BjmkOMyAmr— mad decent ™ (@_NicoSuave_) January 22, 2021
I’m not sure if Keon was expecting James to hedge on the screen here or not. (A hedge is s way to defend the pick and roll where the defender responsible for the player setting the pick jumps out in front of the player handling the ball to impede his path.) But either way, he should have been expecting the offensive player to drive to the middle of the floor, but his body position indicates he wasn’t expecting that or just wasn’t in good position for it to happen. No other Vol in the post steps over to help, either.
UF layup. They scored 42 points in the paint -- quite a few off layups from poor perimeter defense. Indecision on the screen and more indecision from James on the help. pic.twitter.com/Cj5HkOt9us— mad decent ™ (@_NicoSuave_) January 22, 2021
This time, Fulkerson does hedge on the screen, but Johnson again is basically leveraging the wrong direction. If he’s got Fulky there on the hedge to the left, then he should be playing in a spot where he guard right and also be prepared to cut off the dribbler if he tries to “split,” the hedge, or quickly cut to the basket, in this case, to the right of the hedge. Johnson, inadvertently I think, has the split guarded but leaves the right wide open. James, kinda, sorta, maybe... fakes some help... question mark? I dunno.
This next one is bad. Hide ya wife; hide ya kids. AVERT YOUR EYES.
This isnt explicitly on Johnson -- Bailey gets blown by. Vols in a 1-3-1, 3/4 court pres (I think) & Bailey is shading to his right, taking away the offense's left. UF flies by, Johnson is late on the help. If Johnson helps sooner, it's probably an alley-oop. Tough call. Bucket. pic.twitter.com/ZSD8phlvJ2— mad decent ™ (@_NicoSuave_) January 22, 2021
The Vols are (I think) in a 1-3-1, 3⁄4 court press. Typically in this style of press defense, the position that Bailey is in is the most important. At first glance, maybe you wonder why Bailey is shading to the offense’s left. That’s usually a tactic against somebody like Vescovi, who the defense knows is left-hand dominant. The idea is to take the offensive player’s ability to go to his strong side. But, in this case, Bailey’s shading that way because his job is to keep the offense away from the middle of the floor, guide the dribbler to the sideline where, ideally, another Tennessee player can run up and they can employ a trap. But, uhh, instead, Bailey just kinda let’s the guy run by him, and then nobody helps.
This is already long enough, so if you want more go to Twitter (I know you don’t want more).
It’s Fight or Flight, not Flight or Flight
Alabama led by as many as 14 points in the Vols’ initial loss of the season, but Tennessee lost by eight. The Tide shot 50 percent from deep, and went 8-10 from long range in just the second half. But Tennessee turned the ball over just nine times and won the rebounding battle. Things didn’t go Tennessee’s way, but the guys didn’t quit. It sure looked like they quit against Florida. And, the Vols got beat at their very own game. They played poor perimeter defense, got pounded inside and turned it over a bunch, which is essentially Tennessee’s recipe for winning games, not losing them. I’m going to close with a long-ish quote from Barnes, because he says everything I might otherwise.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what we talked about,” Barnes said, when asked about his team not fighting back in the loss. “There gets to be a point, you have to get leadership from your seniors. Fulky and Yves can’t hide behind anybody. They can’t. There are a lot of teams that we beat up on with that last group a couple years ago. But now those guys are the ones that, when you’re in a situation like that, those young guys are waiting on those guys (the seniors) to lead them, because they’ve played more games. And they haven’t done it. All we’ve asked Yves to do, to simplify for him, is to play defense and rebound. He hasn’t done that. At some point in time we have to make some shots, too, obviously. We just didn’t get the leadership. We don’t have the leadership, obviously. And we have to get it.”
“But again, I could tell you this, it makes me sick to watch a group of guys not play hard,” he added. “As a coach, it’s probably the hardest thing to stomach as a coach, when you know the other team is playing harder in every facet of the game, beating you every which way, and you don’t respond. That’s how I felt tonight anyway. And that’s the most disappointing part in the game.”