From the word go on Wednesday night, it felt like Tennessee was poised to not miss a beat in their first game without Olivier Nkamhoua. The Vols jumped out to a quick 14-2 lead against Mississippi State and held a 23-11 lead until one of the team’s patented offensive lulls struck around the midway point of the half.
The lack of Nkamhoua’s presence was going to be felt in this game as State boasts the tallest team in the SEC and look to take advantage of it each game.
“We knew they were gonna pound it inside and, you know, we fouled way too much early, but you gotta give them credit for that,” said Rick Barnes in his postgame presser. “We knew that...it was gonna be a high level, physical game around the rim.”
Finding the pieces to plug in for Nkamhoua was something coach Barnes touched on being a point of emphasis moving forward. However, the biggest change seemed to be a major minutes influx for three of Tennessee’s best players.
Kennedy Chandler had to pick up some major minutes largely due to Zakai Zeigler’s foul trouble. Santiago Vescovi played 37 minutes tonight, tying his season-high for minutes in regulation, and Josiah-Jordan James played a season-high 37 minutes as well.
James complemented his extended minutes with another efficient game offensively. He added 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, 3-of-6 from three, and helped the Vols break out of its early first half drought. James has been absolute money thus far in February, averaging 17.3 points per game with a 47.1% clip from three, and 5.7 rebounds in three games this month.
James is the Vols’ leading rebounder, and his late-season emergence specifically has been a major lift and will continue to be as he takes on a much higher leverage role within the offense. James assuming such a role and running with it also sets up the potential of the Vols playing small ball confidently with him at the four.
James was asked about his minutes after the game, and here was his answer: “We as a team, we have the mindset of doing whatever it takes to win, so I mean if it’s playing 40 minutes a night or other guys stepping up, playing a lot of big minutes...if that’s what it takes to win and put ourselves in a position to win the game, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Barnes isn’t so sure that workload for his star players is what’s best.
“We’re in February...those two guys [Vescovi and James] are old enough, mature enough, conditioned enough that they can do it. Do we want to do it every night? We don’t,” stated Barnes. “Going forward we’re gonna need more out of Brandon, out of Jonas, out of Fulky, out of Uros.”
Between the latter names mentioned, Huntley-Hatfield, Aidoo, Fulkerson, and Plavsic combined for just 14 points on 7-of-16 from the field. Plavsic was in constant foul trouble all night and struggled any time Mississippi State went to a pick-and-roll game. He was exposed quite a bit without Nkamhoua inside to aid him. Fulkerson played the brunt of the minutes due to foul trouble but was getting pushed around inside consistently. Barnes may not want to give his stars these kinds of minutes, but like he said, it’s February, and with key games still to be played, he may have to go small to win.
The Vols surrendered their lead late in the first half and spent almost the remainder of the game in a back and forth with the Bulldogs. As has been a theme for the Vols all season, though, their defense made the big plays and blew it open late.
Sparked by Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler’s quick hands, the Vols turned over State four times in the final four minutes, outscoring the Bulldogs 11-2 in that span to end it. Both Chandler and Zeigler tallied five steals each in this game.
“These guys, they’re playing for each other at a high degree, and we’re not gonna be perfect and yet we’ve been able to fight through a lot,” said Barnes. “...there is no doubt, we got a group of guys right now who have bought into this team and each other.”
The Vols have now won six straight in SEC play, and with Alabama’s latest skid, they now sit in a third place tie with Arkansas in the conference. Adjustments are going to be abundant as the Vols move forward and try to piece together what to do without Olivier, but adding another quadrant one win at Mississippi State is a great start.