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Rick Barnes breaks down Tennessee’s ugly loss to Florida

A bad night in Gainesville.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Just when you start believing in this team, it always seems to happen. If you follow Tennessee basketball, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The Volunteers get on a roll, and then — bang. Out of nowhere they’ll have a night where they just can’t do anything right.

Tennessee opened the night in Gainesville down 17-4, as the Florida Gators started hot. No big deal though, Tennessee has been there before. Very quickly, the Volunteers settled in and battled back to a six point deficit before halftime. It didn’t take long for them to find a lead in the second half.

However, down the stretch? No shots were falling. Josiah-Jordan James couldn’t buy one from three, Santiago Vescovi was pressing, and Colin Castleton controlled the paint.

Florida walked away late, handing Tennessee their second SEC loss of the season.

“Consistency,” Rick Barnes blamed after the game. “We need some guys to be aggressive and do what we’ve asked them to do, in terms of taking the ball to the basket. The right guys. Some guys, they’re game-planning hard for Santi and Zakai. They’re game-planning hard for those guys. We know that. But the other guys, our post guys inside, we need to get a consistent scorer down there. I’m not sure what O had tonight. He had 11 points. What did he shoot? 4-13. We need somebody else. We need Julian, we need Tyreke Key. The guys that we played tonight, we need all those guys.”

It’s a situation we’ve seen play out too many times. Tennessee shot 5-25 (20%) from three-point range as a team. James had just four points in 29 minutes — Julian Phillips took just four shots all night. The staff has talked a lot about Phillips being more aggressive, and we certainly didn’t see that on Wednesday.

“Our guys are disappointed,” Barnes said. “But we’re better than this. Tonight we weren’t. I know these guys want to win, they want to do the right thing. When you get in the game, and you feel like you’re getting great looks at the basket, and it’s not going in with guys you want to shoot it, that’s the one thing I told our guys, we can’t stop shooting it. They were content to say OK, they’re not making shots, we’re going to let them keep shooting them. Again, we had a couple good shots within 10 feet of the basket that didn’t go in.”

Zakai Zeigler nearly single-handedly pulled Tennessee out of the fire. Midway through the second half, it was Zeigler nailing back to back three-pointers to give Tennessee a lead. It felt like they were going to figure things out from there, but the offensive struggles ended up continuing.

Zeigler finished just 6-19 from the field, but didn’t really force things until he had to late. According to Barnes, that’s exactly what he expects out of his point guard.

“I thought he struggled early,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “He settled in. They were making him make plays with it. They were trying to take Santi out. He turned down some shots. I don’t care if he ends up shooting 30 shots a night. If the shot is there, he has to take it. I thought he was going in and let Castleton block it. Castleton just stands back there. He is a one-man zone at the rim. Z is our guy. We are going to stay with him. He will learn from it like he always does.”

The tipping point of the game was fueled by Florida’s Colin Castleton, who frankly just took over in the paint. The senior big man made a few tough shots, while also getting to the free throw stripe and connecting. Castleton also affected the game at the other end of the floor, making things tough at the rim for Tennessee.

“He is a good player,” Barnes said of Castleton. “Early, I thought we did some good things there. They started spacing out, trying to isolate him one on one. We wanted to play position on him and get some bigs from the outside and be ready to rotate the shooters off the scouting report, but our post defense wasn’t good. We gave him angles. His up-and-under moves, you can’t let him get to the rim. We let him get too close to the rim.”

At the end of the day, Tennessee’s top ranked defense couldn’t do enough to make up for the offensive ineptitude. Florida’s defense is really good, to be fair, ranking eighth in the country (per KenPom) entering the day. But still, how can you trust this Tennessee team going forward? Unfortunately they just feel like a ticking time bomb, counting down until their next implosion.

That’s exactly what happened last March, too. Tennessee rolled through the SEC Tournament to cut down the nets, and then bam — they lose to 11th-seeded Michigan in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. What felt like a special team once again was bounced from the tourney earlier than expected, dumping more gasoline on the narrative that Rick Barnes can’t win in March.

This group, which is made up of most of the same pieces, has the same feel.

Look, it’s basketball. No team is going to roll through an entire season without a few clunkers along the way. However, Tennessee has to figure out a way to remain competitive on those nights. When they have them, it’s ugly. I mean brutal. They don’t really have that guy that can go to the rim and get a bucket at will, that’s been well documented. There were spots last night where they badly needed that guy to emerge, but nothing was happening. Vescovi, James, Nkamhoua, Zeigler all gave it a go, and all couldn’t find the bottom of the net.

Can things change from here? Sure, but it feels like a story we’ve seen play out before. Can Tennessee get hot and make a run? Absolutely. Unfortunately, we just don’t have much evidence to make that argument.