How many of you had a 20 point scrimmage win against Gonzaga — then a loss to Colorado on the Tennessee basketball bingo card? That’s what we’ve got so far in this young season. The Volunteers were 15 point favorites in Nashville on Sunday, but the Buffaloes pulled away in the second half.
Dreadful offense, more poor shooting and shaky defense down the stretch did Tennessee in. Some of the issues we saw and glossed over against Tennessee Tech showed up again, mainly on the offensive end of the floor.
Tennessee is replacing Kennedy Chandler at point guard, and it was simply a forgone conclusion that Zakai Zeigler would slide in and be fine. He played at such a high level last year as Tennessee’s sixth man, but so far as a starter, it’s been a bumpy ride.
Rick Barnes might just go back to last year’s formula.
“He was totally out of control to the point where I’ve already told him ‘you’re not starting’ because him starting the game hasn’t worked very well in terms of the way we want to get started,” Rick Barnes said after the loss. “So we’ll have to make a decision on how we want to go that way. Obviously as Jo(siah) continues to get back he’ll be there at the start of the game. We have to get better execution at the start of the game. We can’t start the game by throwing it out of bounds on the very first possession of the game.”
Zeigler finished 4-12 from the field with two turnovers. He scored 12 points and added four assists, but the offense as a whole was stuck with its wheels spinning for much of the day.
Zakai wasn’t the only issue, either. Santiago Vescovi ended up shooting just 2-13 from the field — 2-11 from three-point range. Tyreke Key was 1-9 and Julian Phillips was 1-6. Tennessee just isn’t winning many games shooting that kind of percentage.
Barnes was less than impressed with Vescovi’s day in particular.
“I think he tries to do too much,” Barnes said of Vescovi. “I think he needs to play the role we need him to play. When he’s not making shots and he’s still open he has to shoot the ball because I think guys are expecting him to shoot it and when he starts driving, he and Z both are out of control.
“We don’t know what’s going on. Guys don’t know. It goes back, there’s going to be games where if they take shots within our offense they’re going to make shots. It’s when shots are rushed but when we come off screens knowing the shots that we have worked on for years but when he loses his confidence now he thinks that every time I get it I have to go create things for my teammates. He gets himself in trouble.”
As a whole, complacency was an issue on Sunday, according to Barnes.
“I didn’t like our mindset coming in,” Barnes said. “If we think we’re just good enough to go out there and play, today proved the fact that we’re not. And whether we’re making threes or not, you should be able to play better basketball than we played today.”
So, now what? Early season losses are hardly backbreakers. If anything, they’re attention-getters and opportunities to grow. You know Barnes won’t let this opportunity slip by. The question is this — if not Zakai Zeigler, then who?
Zeigler will still be a huge part of this rotation, but who starts in his place? There’s not an obvious answer here with freshman BJ Edwards struggling to find the floor to this point. Is it as simple as throwing Edwards into the fire? Or will Barnes shift Vescovi, James or Key over to the point?
All are options at this point, and I’ll bet you see variations of each scenario in the upcoming non-conference games. The only issue? Tennessee has just one more tune-up game (Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday) before heading to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
So Wednesday’s game is big. Tennessee has some issues to iron out, and their response after a brutal showing on Sunday will be fascinating.