Tennessee took another loss on the road on Tuesday night, dropping one to Texas A&M. It was the fifth loss in the last seven games for the Volunteers, who are sputtering down the stretch.
Injuries have played a big part, but let’s be honest — the warning signs were there before Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips went down. Now, with just three games left in the regular season, Tennessee has to get healthy, then try and get the momentum rolling back in the right direction before the SEC Tournament begins.
Still, despite the downward trend, Rick Barnes remains confident and has seen situations like this play out before.
“We’re going to find a way,” Barnes said following the loss to the Aggies. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my career. I’ve seen teams that struggle like we have here. Some of it too, you go back and look and we’ve played against teams—this is a great atmosphere here. But again, I thought our guys handled all of that. We’ve got some guys, some guys that we’ve been playing with, they have great character. They’re going to fight.”
Fighting hasn’t been the problem. Nobody questions the heart of this team, but unfortunately, everyone has questions about the offense. They’re clearly out of sync, and we saw Tennessee settling for long three-pointers pretty often on Tuesday. We also saw our fair share of airballs. The Volunteers got deep into the shot clock quite a bit, and the Aggies actually forced a couple of turnovers by way of the shot clock.
“We’re not going to be perfect,” Barnes said. “Zakai, he knows how valuable he is to our team but we need everybody. We need everybody that’s out there playing to take shots. We still feel like Tyreke needs to shoot the ball more. We feel like he’s turning down shots. We’re begging those guys to take those shots. Tonight, I thought our guys did a great job with the shot fake and getting into gaps because we had a lot of wide open shots and, again, I don’t have a problem with the number of threes, when we get great looks at it we have to let it go and believe that when we shoot it and get the rhythm going we’ll make our share of them and if not we’ll go rebound the ball.”
Tennessee simply couldn’t match Texas A&M’s ability to get to the rim. The Aggies went to the free throw stripe 34 times, connecting on 28 of them. Tennessee was just 10-14 from the line. That action towards the rim put the pressure on Tennessee’s defense, and it was the obvious difference in an otherwise close contest. A&M guard Wade Taylor was 16-17 from the free throw line alone.
There’s no magic wand here, but getting James and Phillips back in the lineup would help, if nothing else from a depth perspective. Barnes says he’s not going to force it, however.
“It’s on them,” Barnes said. “I have to believe they are doing everything they can to get back. I believe that. I have to believe it with all my heart because they’re competitive. They want to play but, again, no one is working any harder than what (trainer) Chad (Newman) and (strength coach) Garrett (Medenwald) are. They’re doing what we ask them to do but we don’t want them to play unless they’re healthy.”
Tennessee gets a breather as South Carolina comes to town on Saturday. They’ll then finish with a home game against Arkansas, then a road trip to Auburn. The SEC Tournament will take place the following week.