Finally, a win!
Vols topple top-ranked Tide, 68-59
The Vols entered their game against Alabama on Wednesday having dropped two straight on buzzer beaters to Vanderbilt and Missouri. They were also going to be without Josiah-Jordan James due to an ankle sprain and Julian Phillips who is battling a hip flexor strain.
This led to starting roles for two usual bench players, Jonas Aidoo and Jahmai Mashack who were thrust into the lineup due to the injuries, and both played very well, helping anchor a tremendous defensive effort for Tennessee.
Alabama posted their lowest scoring total on the season as the Vols did a tremendous job keeping the fastest tempo team in college basketball limited in transition. Alabama ranks in the top 100 in the country on points in the paint, and are top 15 among power conference teams in fast break and second chance points, per CBB Analytics. The Tide got just two buckets in transition for five points, their fewest total on the season, and they only scored two points off of Tennessee turnovers, also their lowest mark this season.
A ton of credit has to go to Jonas Aidoo. The 6-foot-11 sophomore had the best game of his young career, scoring 12 points and nabbing 11 rebounds, giving him his first double-double of his career. Aidoo is the Vols’ best rim protector, and his three blocks along with countless strong contests of Alabama shots made him a menace to Alabama’s style of play around the rim. Alabama was able to get the ball in the paint, just not at their normal rate, and they made just 6 of 22 shots inside, by far their worst mark this season, for just 12 points, also their worst total. A lot of that should get chalked up to Aidoo’s defense at the rim.
Alabama’s freshman sensation, Brandon Miller, a sure-fire All-American this season, was held in check as well. Despite putting up a double-double, Miller shot 4-of-11 from the field (36.4%) including 3-of-8 from three, and it felt like almost everything was contested, largely by Jahmai Mashack. Guarding Miller ideally would have fallen on Julian Phillips who has been Tennessee’s defensive glue all season, but Mashack stepped up and did what he does best.
It was the physical rock fight Tennessee needed it to be. They never stood a chance if Alabama’s offense were clicking, but they made the Tide uncomfortable all night long.
Slow start dooms Vols, ‘Cats sweep season series in Lexington
However, the momentum of a win over top-ranked Alabama did not carry over to Saturday. A slow start would be an understatement for this game. Tennessee’s season-long shooting woes traveled to Rupp Arena on Saturday, and it doomed the Vols in the worst way as they made just one of their first eleven shots from the floor. Couple that with immediate foul trouble out of the gate for Zakai Zeigler, and the Vols essentially spent 30 of the game’s 40 minutes just trying to get back into fighting distance.
Tennessee scored just 19 points in the first half, trailing Kentucky by 20, 39-19. They scored more in the first half against Auburn in a game where they scored 46 points. It was porous to say the least. They made just seven shots on 27 attempts and went 1-for-13 from three. By the end of the game, those wouldn’t even be the most embarrassing shooting number they posted.
Despite a 20 point deficit, Tennessee came out sharp in the second half. After missing all three of his shots in the first half, Santiago Vescovi found his rhythm and started cutting it loose. Vescovi scored 17 in the final 20 minutes, and, once again, Jahmai Mashack established himself, but this time, offensively. Mashack scored nine in the second half to give him 16, his career high.
Whistles came quick and often in the second half on both sides. It presented a great chance for Tennessee to crawl their way back into the game. However, that was not the case. At all. The Vols got into the bonus with about 10 minutes left in the half. They proceeded to miss the front end of every single one-and-one, going 0-for-6 in the second half from the line. The Vols lost by 12. They missed 10 free throws on the day.
From the bubble to slightly comfortably in, Tennessee has single handedly created Kentucky’s tournament résumé, getting swept in the 2022-23 season.
Tennessee’s main guards have been sore spot far too often on offense
Both games against Kentucky, Calipari’s guards have simply outplayed Tennessee’s. Kentucky’s guards didn’t shoot well in the first meeting in Knoxville a month ago, but they absolutely suffocated Vescovi, Key, Zeigler, and Josiah-Jordan James. Mind you, Kentucky is the 87th ranked defense in the country with an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 100.6, and the Vols have made them look like a prime Calipari defense from the early 2010s. Vescovi still managed 13 in that first meeting, but it was on 4-of-13 from the field and 1-of-6 from deep. Key, Zeigler, and James combined for 7-of-26 from the floor.
The second matchup saw Vescovi have a great second half, but with no James and Zeigler in foul trouble, it wasn’t pretty outside of Santi. Zeigler had his worst defensive game of the year by far, getting into early foul trouble guarding Cason Wallace. Wallace ended up with 16 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds.
Zeigler’s foul trouble has led to some troubling splits. With some help from Evan Miyakawa, his site has lineup splits. With Zeigler off the floor, it led to seeing Key/Vescovi/Mashack/Nkamhoua/Aidoo or Key/Vescovi/Mashack/Nkamhoua/Plavsic a lot late in the first half on Saturday. Overall, neither of those lineups leave a lot to be desired. The first grouping with Aidoo at the five sits at a -17.9 adjusted team efficiency margin while the second with Uros at the five sits at a team worst -46.0 mark. Zeigler picked up foul number two with 14:05 left in the first half, and we saw those lineups for about 10 minutes on Saturday after that. It happened to be the 10 minutes where Kentucky’s lead jumped from 6-2 to 22-10.
The guard depth this year for the Vols has left a lot to be desired. As Nick Carner (@_NicoSuave_ on twitter) has pointed out many times, Tennessee’s inability to bring in St. Louis point guard Yuri Collins in the portal amid “tampering” allegations (imagine the loudest groan possible...that’s me hearing about tampering allegations in college sports) has left a massive void of a second ball handler on this team.
What it’s led to is an overwhelming amount of point guard play from Vescovi and Key, neither of whom are point guards, and it takes what usually are Tennessee’s only outside threats on the court and makes one of them run the offense.
Per Miyakawa, Tennessee has one lineup combination that brings positive returns with Zeigler on the bench with an offensive rating over 100 points per 100 possessions, and that’s Key/Nkamhoua/Phillips/Plavsic/Vescovi. That’s a problem.
Oh, and Yuri Collins leads all of college basketball in assists per game.
We’re wrapping things up this week with an update from Utah Watch. Again, for the uninitiated, Utah Watch is my tracker of the worst of power conference teams to see if anyone is on pace to break 2012 Utah’s worst KenPom finish of any power team at 302.
Louisville is going down from UTAH-CON 3 to UTAH-CON 4. The Cardinals picked up a major upset win over Clemson in front of a packed house as they raised the banner for “#1 in Coaches Poll: 2013” since their national championship was vacated. This boosted their rating in KenPom from 294 to 278.
UTAH-CON 5: California — 262
— Don’t look now, but the Golden Bears are making a late season charge at this thing. Losers of 11 straight and 3-24 overall, Cal’s average margin of defeat in this losing streak is 20.6 points. Seems bad.
OFF THE RADAR: South Carolina (224), Minnesota (222), Georgetown (204)
As always, have a great week, and Go Big Orange.