Nobody expected anything out of Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. Frankly, just getting to the Sweet 16 was an accomplishment. But that’s as far as the road would go.
Playing without Zakai Zeigler, Tennessee got past Louisiana to open the tournament. They surprised everyone by handling Duke, thanks to 27 points from Olivier Nkamhoua. However, against FAU, Tennessee would run out of steam.
The Volunteers controlled this one early, playing at the famed Madison Square Garden venue. It was Uros Plavsic setting the tone early in the paint, hitting a couple of shots early from down low to set the pace. Santiago Vescovi got going early from deep, connecting on a couple of three-pointers to secure a Tennessee lead.
Much was made of Tennessee’s physicality against Duke in the round of 32 — the Vols kept that same energy early on against the Owls. Tennessee took a 27-22 lead into the halftime break. They held the Owls to just 21 percent from three-point range, which was a big early win for the Volunteers.
Tennessee held steady out of the break, but after several minutes, the Owls showed up ready to play. You just kind of felt that some of these three-pointers were going to start to drop, and that exactly what happened midway through the second half.
Michael Forrest hit one to cut the lead down to 39-38, then hit another to give the Owls the lead at 41-38. It was a quick 8-0 run for FAU, giving them control of the game at a crucial time.
Alijah Martin connected on another wide open three to extend the lead to 48-41 with under eight minutes to play. Very quickly, Tennessee lost control of this one and FAU was staring at a trip to the Elite Eight.
Florida Atlantic was suddenly winning the rebounding battle in a big way, along with hitting some big shots down the stretch. Tennessee found themselves down ten points with six minutes to play, needing some sort of answer. Jonas Aidoo hit a couple from the midrange, then Jahmai Mashack connected on a layup in traffic.
The absence of Zakai Zeigler was being felt, as Tennessee seemed aimless offensively in crunch time. Still, Josiah-Jordan James hit from three to make things interesting late with 3:16 to go. Tennessee was down 55-50 at that point.
FAU missed, but neither James nor Vescovi could capitalize. Nicholas Boyd extended the lead to seven points on a run-out, and things were looking bleak for Tennessee. Johnell Davis made two free throws to put the Vols down nine points.
This one was done.
Tennessee’s season ends in Madison Square Garden with a loss to Florida Atlantic, 62-55.
The old issues showed up one more time for Tennessee — a disappearing offense disappeared again. FAU outscored Tennessee 40-28 in the second half, ousting a Volunteers team that frankly overachieved by beating Duke last weekend. Nkamhoua’s 27 point performance on Saturday was answered with a six-point game tonight.
Josiah-Jordan James had ten and Santiago Vescovi had nine. Without Zeigler, Tennessee just isn’t going to win many games with that kind of offensive output from those two.
Tennessee is likely set for a roster overhaul this offseason. Vescovi, James, Nkamhoua, Plavsic and Phillips have decisions to make in the coming weeks — ones that will shape the roster next year for Rick Barnes.
For now though, Tennessee is dealing with another painfully empty trip to the NCAA Tournament.