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Rick Barnes still searching for answers as Tennessee continues to fade

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NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Tennessee fans were shown a movie that they’ve seen far too often from this basketball team this season. The Volunteers came out flat and lifeless, and outside of a couple of moments in the game, stayed that way for the majority of the afternoon. It’s strange to see a Rick Barnes coached team continually give these kinds of efforts, especially with so much talent on the roster.

Auburn controlled the boards from the jump, racking up offensive rebounds and creating second chance points. They attacked the paint and got to the free throw stripe a stunning 37 times against Tennessee’s ten. The Tigers had dropped six of their last seven games entering this one, and were playing without star guard Sharife Cooper. Imagine how this might have looked with Cooper playing.

At this point in the season, Tennessee is just hanging on while they tumble down the projected NCAA Tournament seed list. The Vols are just 6-6 since that ugly loss to Florida, and aren’t showing any signs of coming out of this tailspin.

“We’ve got three guys that really brought energy today,” Barnes said after the loss. “I mean, Jaden has been fighting a cold. But I thought he and Keon and Yves both, all three of those guys, I thought did exactly what we like for them to do. Other than that, I would say not so much.”

Springer and Johnson led Tennessee with 20 and 23 points scored, respectively. The five-star freshmen were once again a bright spot, but Tennessee didn’t get production from anywhere else. Senior John Fulkerson remains broken, playing just 19 minutes and scoring four points on four shots.

Fulkerson was supposed to lead this team and get help from the incoming NBA-caliber freshmen, but his season has collapsed, and it doesn’t look like the Fulky of old will be walking through that door anytime soon.

“The bottom line is right now we don’t have a post game,” Barnes said. “That’s something that we’ve always had at Tennessee. Even in my first year we found a way to get somebody that could score around the rim. We don’t have that right now consistently. So much of it is being put back on the freshmen. It shouldn’t be that.”

Tennessee now has a week off before facing Florida next Sunday. It’s an opportunity for Yves Pons and Josiah-Jordan James to continue to get healthier, and one of the final chances for Barnes to iron out some of these issues. The SEC Tournament is set for the following week, and then it’s go time in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re going to have to get back and, again, it’s really hard to talk about competitive fire when you don’t feel like your whole team is bringing it,” Barnes said of the upcoming week. “We’ve talked more about that as much as anything, of anything we’ve coached since we’ve been at Tennessee. I don’t understand the inconsistencies because there are enough guys that played enough basketball right now. But this week we have to go back, take a good, hard look. All of us. Everybody in the program. What can I do on my part to make this program what it should be, what we expect from it? And see if we can use this week to get better.”