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What’s next without Olivier Nkamhoua? Rick Barnes breaks it down

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee received some bad news on Monday, learning that starting forward Olivier Nkamhoua would need surgery to repair a left ankle injury. The injury occured during Saturday’s win over South Carolina.

Nkamhoua, now a veteran, has been through the process of the program and had emerged into a key player for Tennessee as a junior.

“First of all, really sad for all us with Olivier because he has become such a huge part of our program and this team,” Rick Barnes said on Monday. “You could just see the strides that he has been making every game. He was getting more and more comfortable understanding so much about where he was as a player and what he needed to do for our team. What that does is it opens up minutes that other people can grab.”

Nkamhoua was the third leading scorer on the team, averaging 8.6 points per game. He was the second leading rebounder, grabbing 5.6 boards per contest. His season had been up and down, but considering Tennessee’s inconsistencies in the post, this is a big blow.

John Fulkerson hasn’t been the same since catching COVID in late December. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield has been slow to emerge, and four-star center Jonas Aidoo has been a non-factor after battling illness in training camp.

Uros Plavsic got hot for a stretch a couple of weeks back, but has cooled over the past couple of weeks.

Now everything has changed. Plavsic and Fulkerson are going to have to step up to the plate and deliver like the veterans they are, while much more will be on the plate of Huntley-Hatfield. Aidoo could see some time as well.

“It will be Brandon, Jonas Aidoo,” Barnes said of where the minutes will go. “We have played Jahmai Mashack at the four some, too. Between those guys, it is going to be who gives us the best chance to win the basketball games and it will get down to who is the better defensive player. They are all young. All three of them are freshmen. We think they all have the ability to score. What we need out of them is consistency on the defensive end and that will be who gets those minutes.”

Tennessee will also roll plenty with a four-guard lineup, with Josiah-Jordan James shifting down to the four. The emergence of Zakai Zeigler makes that lineup work, alongside of Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi.

With a month left to play in the season, Tennessee now has to make a major shift on the fly. Expect several new looks over the next few games, as Barnes and the staff try to pinpoint what works best.

Their first opportunity will come against a good Mississippi State team on the road, Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET.