It was a good night for Tennessee basketball — until it wasn’t. The Volunteers races out of the gates against a bad Georgia Southern team, doing exactly what they were supposed to do. The offense ran through Jonas Aidoo, and the seven-foot big man was dominant.
Aidoo paved the way for Tennessee to build a 49-21 advantage, but then things changed. The Volunteers seemingly slept through the second half as KenPom’s 326th ranked team won the half 35-25. Tennessee’s offense went completely dormant and the defensive effort simply wasn’t what it was in the first.
Of course, Rick Barnes wasn’t happy with that.
“The way they came out and started the second half, honestly, it is extremely disappointing,” Barnes said of his starters. “They should have come out the same way we started the game. We talked about it, obviously. We talked about it is natural and a letdown can be. It goes back to being consistent, disciplined and mental toughness and all that. We didn’t get it done in the second half. We talked from the beginning about these guys being the kind of leaders we want them to be. It goes back to consistency. We have to know what we are going to get from those older guys for 40 minutes not just for 20 minutes.”
Tennessee ended up winning 74-56.
Outside of Aidoo, who Barnes praised after the game, no other Tennessee player was in double figures. Dalton Knecht didn’t seem to have his scoring mentality, Santiago Vescovi didn’t hit a shot from the floor and Josiah-Jordan James and Zakai Zeigler combined for just nine points.
Without Aidoo’s 29 point performance, who knows what Tuesday night ends up looking like. Barnes sent a message before the game was over, sitting James and Vescovi for the final 14 minutes.
“(JJJ), Santi, they have been here longer than anybody,” Barnes continued. Those are the two guys I really count on. Talk to them about it. They weren’t ready. I would tell you. I have told you this before. I think those minutes are precious. i am telling you, I don’t care who it is. If they are going to be out there, they are going to appreciate them and play. From the get-go in the second half, it just wasn’t good basketball.”
It’s been a difficult stretch for Tennessee by design, as Barnes loves to put his teams through the ringer before it really counts over the next few months. This group has come nowhere close to hitting its potential to this point, despite being led by fifth-year seniors and players with multiple years in the system.
Very quickly, the non-conference slate is drying up, too. Tennessee has just three non-conference games left — NC State in San Antonio and home games against Tarleton State and Norfolk State — before the grind of SEC play begins.
There’s another level to this team, which likely hinges on getting Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi going offensively. The sky isn’t exactly falling here — Tennessee can still accomplish everything everyone thought they could in the preseason, but these veteran struggles have been surprising to say the least.
They’ve got a little over three weeks to figure things out before SEC play begins on January 6th.