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Rick Barnes explains Tennessee’s offensive struggles against Ole Miss

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Just when you thought Tennessee had turned a corner, the Volunteers went down to Oxford and got beat by an 8-8 Ole Miss team. Tennessee controlled much of the game, even establishing an 11 point lead at one point. But a 12 minute dry spell from the field ultimately did them in, as the Rebels came all the way back to take the lead and eventually steal the win.

For a team with so much talent along with returning experience, it was a maddening second half — particularly on the offensive side of things. Tennessee was completely stonewalled by the Ole Miss zone defense, which led to the Vols’ fourth loss of the season.

“We lost our aggressiveness and talked about them changing their defense, which they did,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “We got to the ball where we were throwing the ball sideline to sideline, holding the ball and getting trapped. We did not protect the ball the way we needed to and had some horrendous turnovers. You add that with the fact that we missed some shots I think we should’ve made—also add missing free throws—it adds up to being a long night. We didn’t have great guard play, you like to think when teams change defenses, your guards have good basketball IQ to make adjustments. It’s disappointing but the thing we’ve been looking for all year is consistency. We just don’t seem to get it enough when we need to.”

Tennessee shot 36 percent on the night, making just one of their last 14 shots from the field. They were powered early on by three-pointers from Josiah-Jordan James and Yves Pons, but those shots quickly dried up.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, was able win in the paint with Romello White and others. Tennessee offered little resistance down low, and really couldn’t get anything done in the paint all night long. The Vols were crushed in the paint to the tune of 30-10 — an unacceptable mark for any team.

“Well, it is frustrating because (John Fulkerson) went, he reverted back early catching the ball, holding it like he had been,” Barnes said. “When he finally made a little jump hook, he went and played with it. I can talk about the freshman starting. John has played enough right now—he should be consistent. I think over the last three games or so Yves has done the things we like him to do. John Fulkerson had a good game the other night and we were hoping he would be back, but he wasn’t. He’s a guy in the past that when we needed those big baskets inside, we could go to him, but he was waiting too long.”

Fulkerson was the guy for this team last season. When Tennessee needed a bucket, they called his number and he usually found a way to deliver. That hasn’t been the case this season, and Fulkerson hasn’t really been showing any signs of getting back to his old self. The senior forward took just five shots all night long, scoring eight points in 29 minutes.

His production has been impacted by the arrival of the highly-touted freshmen guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. Each have offered flashes this season, but Tennessee just can’t quite seem to put all the parts together and play as a unit. A COVID pause and an abbreviated training camp certainly didn’t help things, but now over halfway through the season, Rick Barnes is still looking for his team — particularly his younger players — to do the little things correctly.

“Not listening coming out of timeouts, throwing the ball to the wrong side opposed to throwing it where it’s supposed to go,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s listening or understanding. I mean we call some plays and a couple guys will look around and say, ‘What is it?’ or ‘Where?’ When we have the older group, they can execute more but the younger group does not understand the importance of offensive execution the way they need to.”

Tennessee’s schedule is just ramping up, too. A road trip to Kentucky looms next. Even though the Wildcats are just 5-10 on the season, you know they’ll bring plenty of raw talent to the table. Matchups against Florida and LSU come next week, offering two more tough tests for a group that doesn’t seem to have much going right for them at the moment.

The Vols have now dropped three of their last five games and continue to struggle to find answers on the offensive end. Barnes has about a month to get them going before tournament season begins.