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Tennessee loses to LSU 79-67

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Trips to Baton Rouge are absolutely no fun

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

A familiar theme plagued Tennessee against LSU Saturday evening as the Vols fell to the Tigers 79-67.

The Vols struggled offensively, again, with an overall 39-percent figure that looks a little more respectable on paper than what we saw on the floor. Part of that was the dismal first half, in which Tennessee hit just nine of 22 shots and four of 14 3-point attempts. UT fell victim to multiple, several-minute scoring droughts, just like we saw against Ole Miss and numerous other times this season.

To make matters worse, Tennessee’s defense had no answers for LSU’s size, speed and overall athleticism.

If you look at the shot chart above from the first half, you can see that issue manifested in LSU getting repeated easy looks right at the rim. And when the Tigers did settle for outside looks, they finagled their way over, past or through would-be Vol box outs for offensive boards and second-chance points. LSU turned 14 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points and outrebounded Tennessee 41-33 overall.

LSU’s defensive pressure, which was consistent but also varied in its implementation, forced Tennessee’s guards into multiple, somewhat out-of-character, turnovers. The Vols ended up with 15 giveaways that LSU converted into 23 points. While Kennedy Chandler had a good scoring game — 19 points on 50-percent shooting — he also set a new career-and-season high with six turnovers. That’s obviously not what you’re looking for from your point guard, but it’s even more troubling considering that Chandler had five turnovers in the Vols’ last game against Ole Miss — a game that Tennessee very well could have lost, too.

Tennessee did get to the free-throw line against the Tigers, which is something that’s been a struggle all year and on the surface seems like it maybe should have been a bright spot in the box score. And yet, the Vols went out and bricked 14 of their 37 total attempts, basically leaving the Vols’ minus point differential out there on the floor in the 12-point loss.

Super senior John Fulkerson struggled with just three points in his second game back from missing the Alabama game in COVID protocols. According to Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes, Fulkerson was benched against Ole Miss due to the forward’s “energy and effort.” After the LSU loss, Barnes was again critical of Fulkerson’s play.

“John gets the ball knocked away from him,” Barnes said. “You can’t have those turnovers. Josiah (Jordan James) throws it inbounds quick one time. Zakai (Zeigler) has no chance to catch it and turn around. Those kind of plays from older guys, that’s tough. And again, that’s what I’m talking about, where we need John to help us. If not, he needs to step aside, I’m telling you. We need him. We’ve talked to him enough about it.”

“He’s got to come out and know how people are playing. But he can’t stand there with the team that we talk about all week, that is going to reach, grab, poke at the ball, and let the ball stay away from his body. We keep talking to him about it. But again, he plays too vertical. He’s got to get down. I just think it gets down to where he’s got to play tougher, harder. I’m not going to say more physical, because we’re not asking him to do that. But we are asking him to do what he needs to do to get himself in space to play. Defensively, rebounding wise, he’s got to do that. If he does nothing but do that, that will help us.”

Fulkerson had a career-best type game, with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 13 drawn-fouls, against Arizona in Tennessee’s somewhat surprising victory against the Wildcats before the Christmas break. But since Fulkerson returned from his most recent COVID stint, he’s not looked the same, and I wonder how much he’s still being affected by lingering symptoms of the virus.

Despite the ugly game, the Vols cut a 20-point LSU second-half lead down to five on a Vescovi 3 with 3:02 left in the game. Tennessee then missed a layup and turned it over on an ill-advised lob attempt on a baseline out-of-bounds play that led to an easy, run-out layup for LSU on the other end. LSU got a dunk on its next possession that effectively ended the game.

Uros Plavsic was Tennessee’s second-leading scorer with 12 points — that ALL came in the second half — on 5-8 shooting. I love Uros, but if he’s ever a main source of the team’s points, that’s a pretty good indication of how well the offense functioned. He air balled a free throw, had a dunk blocked from behind and still had his best game. Ain’t that something.

Josiah-Jordan James’ shot was noticeably off, again, as he hit his first three-point attempt but proceeded to miss his next six shots — all tries from deep. James is shooting 31 percent overall and 24 percent from 3-point range on an average 5.5 attempts per game.

Santiago Vescovi did his usual thing with 14 points, three made 3s and five rebounds.

The Vols are now 10-4 on the season and 1-2 in SEC play. South Carolina comes to town next Tuesday before traveling to Kentucky to play the 16th-ranked Wildcats next Saturday.