The Vols beat the Golden Eagles 80-69 on Friday, and here are three things.
Ugly wins still count as wins
Tennessee was a bit sluggish on Friday — I mean, the guys literally dribbled the ball off their own legs twice in the first two-ish minutes of the game — but that’s understandable for a game the day after Thanksgiving. Heck, UT even went into halftime trailing TN Tech 34-35, so sluggish might be an understatement. Though it’s never real entertaining to watch your team not play well against an inferior opponent, it’s good for the squad’s big-picture outlook that they grit-and-grinded their way to a win when they were short-handed and things looked outta sync. That kinda experience is good for the rest of the season, and good for the team’s chemistry.
The Vols were without Josiah-Jordan James again, as the junior do-it-all missed his second-straight game with the flu. Guard/wing Justin Powell didn’t play either, with Tennessee citing the same reason as James for Powell’s absence. Notching a win without two key rotation players in a net positive for this group’s ability to secure victories even when influences outside of its control aren’t working in its favor.
B.H.H. has his best game yet as a V-O-L
I’ve been hesitant to get real excited about Brandon Huntley-Hatfield’s potential for this year yet, mostly because the adjustment from high school to college is an experience that each individual handles differently. But BHH making the jump a year earlier than typical likely compounds many of the overall difficulties that come with a freshman basketball season.
Further, he’s a post player, and the adjustment is often more difficult for those guys than it is for the guards. Going from being the biggest body and often the best athlete on the floor in HS to banging and bumping against opponents who sometimes have multiple years in D-1 strength and conditioning programs is quite the change.
After looking a bit lost on some defensive possessions and playing a season-low 12 minutes against Villanova, BHH bounced back with 23 mostly-productive minutes against UNC in which he had six points on seven shot attempts, five rebounds, one steal and one block. Then, he had his best scoring game of the season against Tennessee Tech with 12 points on 6-7 shooting from the field. His post game is understandably a work in progress, but against the Golden Eagles, we saw BHH’s most well-rounded offensive showing yet and perhaps the framework of a legit, burgeoning scoring threat down low, once March rolls around.
I’d probably like to see BHH work a bit more to establish deeper initial position, but I mean, whatever, I’m being picky. He gets the entry pass and immediately starts working to the middle of the floor. Then, once he’s got the defender’s leverage where he wants it, he spins back baseline and finishes with an easy drop-step layup. The Vols hadn’t scored in around FIVE minutes of game time at this point, and the offense cleared out to let BHH go to work. This was the beginning of a 14-4 run for the Vols over the next five-ish minutes of the game during which Huntley-Hatfield scored six of his 12 total points.
A few possessions later, we see a counter to the baseline spin/ drop step.
This time, he shows a kinda halfway face up and some ball-fake action after corralling a less-than-stellar entry pass. He tests the defender with a couple back-to-the-basket dribbles and instead reversing momentum to the baseline, he turns into the middle and rises up for a feathery, 10-ish foot jumper.
I don’t want to imply that I think this game was some offensive revolution for BHH. He also scored on some easy put backs when he was either just in the right place at the right time or in a spot to use his size and strength on an overmatched group of Tennessee Tech post players, but nothing can simulate these live-game chances, and I was happy to see Mr. Huntley-Hatfield have a strong showing.
The maybe not so curious case of Victor Bailey
Bailey was the only Tennessee starter to not score in double figures Friday. He ended up playing 19 minutes, scoring just two points on 1-5 shooting and providing very little tangible evidence that he was ever on the floor. This was Bailey’s first start of the season, and it’s likely the only reason he started was because both Triple-J and Justin Powell missed the game. Make of that what you want, but there’s a lot going on right now in the Vols’ guards/wings rotation, and Bailey just simply isn’t helping his own case for more playing time.
That mostly because he’s supposedly the best shooter on the team, and he’s been in the funkiest of funky shooting funks from distance so far this year. He’s hitting just 18 percent of his long-range shots, and he’s hit multiple 3s just once (in the season opener), and put up oh-fors from deep in Tennessee’s last three games.
After the Vols’ loss to Villanova, when Bailey played 23 minutes, hit just one two-point shot and added absolutely nothing else to his box score except for a single foul, Barnes played the veteran guard just six minutes against the Tar Heels. In last Wednesday’s media sessions, Barnes explained Bailey’s lack of minutes was more about how well the other guards (Santi, ZZ, Chandler) were playing together and indicated that he expects to leave the rotation up for tweaks depending on who’s playing well in the context of the given game.
“It was the fact that I think that’s going to be our team this year a lot,” Barnes said. “There are going to be nights when some guys have a little bit more than others. That’s what we’ll ride that night. VJ, again, he’s such a hard worker. He’ll come back and he did, like you would expect, he was a great teammate. Pulled for those guys and will continue to do that. But he came back to practice and does what he does every day. I’ve said before, no one is going to put any more work in than VJ does. But it really was the fact that those three guys had it going. And we just knew that’s what we needed to do that particular day. Every game is going to have its different personality. Every game does. So based on what that personality brings from that game, that’s who we’ll be playing.”
I’m not worried about Bailey yet, because I’m not really worried about any player, yet. Bailey’s played 100-plus games of college basketball in two different programs, so he’s dealt with many of the various ups and downs players experience. He’s also got a reputation as a streaky shooter with plenty of sample size to draw from.
But man — what if he could get it going? The Vols have so much potential, it would just be super dope to see the team really clicking and operating at full capacity. A man can dream.