Some games you run into hot shooting. Other games, you may not put your best foot forward defensively. On Saturday at Rupp Arena, it was some of both, resulting in a 107-79 loss to No. 18 Kentucky.
A struggling Tennessee team entered the big matchup over the weekend looking to put some issues behind them, particularly on the offensive end. However, it was defensive issues that ended up costing this one, along with some can’t-miss shooting from Kentucky.
Tennessee got punched in the mouth time and time again, eventually getting swallowed up by the avalanche that was the Kentucky offense on that day. It was a continuation of Tennessee’s recent struggles, which have the Vols potentially poised to fall out of the AP top 25 for the first time all season.
After the game, Rick Barnes called out his leadership on the team.
“If you ask me of the guys that started, I am not sure if I can pinpoint any one of them,” Barnes said when asked who was speaking up during tough times. “Maybe that is going to be a great lesson for us that somebody will decide enough is enough, this is what we need, this is how we need to go about this.”
Santiago Vescovi and really Zakai Zeigler have emerged as the heart and soul of the team, at least from an outside point of view. It’s tough to know the full picture without being in that huddle.
This isn’t the picture we all imagined during the offseason when you looked at this roster on paper.
“Throughout the game, the two guys that are the most real when you are talking about that without question are Uros and Jahmai Mashack,” Barnes continued. “They are the ones that when they talk, it is very authentic. Players know players and maybe that is where we are. People will say well I think Zakai has gotten that kind of respect that he wanted to do it. It is tough to ask a freshman to do that. Santi, maybe. To really mean it, this is when you hope some of that is developed, I would say.”
It’s interesting that neither John Fulkerson or Josiah-Jordan James were mentioned. Being the two true elders on the team, Tennessee could use some of that veteran leadership right about now.
Tennessee is now 11-5 overall and 2-3 in conference play. Changes are needed, and it sounds like Barnes will start by playing former five-star prospect Brandon Huntley-Hatfield more going forward. That will likely take some minutes away from Fulkerson, who continues to struggle.
“At the end of last year and the start of this year, all we talked about was leadership,” Barnes said. “The last couple years, we haven’t had it the way we want it. There can be a lot of positives that can come out of something like this. The fact of the matter is we will find out. Maybe this is what we are going to find out. Who is going to be the people who can step up and do it?
“If you are going to say it, you have to back it up.”
Tennessee has a road trip to Vanderbilt up next on Tuesday night, and then will host LSU for their second meeting of the season. Florida and Texas come up the following week before the schedule takes a bit of a breather.