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Vols Hoops Vibe Check and Keys to Beating Kentucky

With Kentucky looming, Vols stumble along the way...how will they rebound?

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Vibe Check: Good...could be better

The vibes right now with this year’s basketball team are good. In fact, prior to Tuesday evening, everything — basketball related — was going quite well for Rick Barnes and Tennessee. After losing three straight to Purdue, Kansas, and North Carolina earlier in the season where the next game felt less competitive than the one before, the vibes were terrible. It felt as if all the bad things from the previous two seasons had multiplied while the defense got marginally worse than their record-setting performances a season ago. However, the man comes around. Dalton Knecht has been a godsend for this program, an injection of offense, an ever growing defender.

Knecht rebounded from an ankle injury with some of the best basketball seen in the country from a non-center. With every major performance has come more accolades. Everywhere you look, it’s The Dalton Knecht Show as the transfer rose from obscurity upon arrival to superstardom in mere months and was named to the late season Wooden Award Watch List on Tuesday. Setting record that has seen his name grouped with the likes of Chris Lofton and Allan Houston is above and beyond what anyone with even the most optimistic expectations could have foreseen coming into the season, and he’s transformed Tennessee’s offense, but more than that — he’s saved this team from itself.

Tuesday was a perfect microcosm of what happens when Tennessee goes wrong. Losing at home 63-59 to a very good South Carolina team, Knecht scored 31 points, the rest of the team...28. Not great! Knecht shot 11-24 from the field, the rest of the Vols made 10 shots.

Oof.

There are concerns across the roster, none that would make a fan doom and gloom over the potential of this team, but they have arisen in spots across the season, and they always tend to rise to shore when it feels least expected, a trend we’ve all become used to in the Barnes Era. Can’t say ol’ Rick doesn’t keep us on our toes!

The Bad Vibes

Aidoo Foul Trouble

This is less of a knock on Aidoo as it is the real problem with Tennessee’s interior that turned up once again on Tuesday night: they lack interior depth. Tennessee is 8-1 this season against power conference schools when Jonas Aidoo plays 25+ minutes, but they’re just 1-4 when he plays fewer than 25 minutes. Size wise, only JP Estrella is capable of presenting even a sliver of what Aidoo can defensively around the rim, and while he’s shown some potential in spurts, he’s also proven to be physically outmatched quite often inside in SEC play.

Then there’s Tobe Awaka. Awaka might just be the most tenacious rebounder I’ve ever seen. For reference, there have been five games this season where Awaka has played under 20 minutes and snagged 7 or more rebounds. Awaka has two knocks: he’s 6-foot-8 and fouls a lot. While he provides a vacuum seal when he gets his hands on a missed shot, he does not provide much in interior defense and is more likely to foul than get a stop. Take the Mississippi State loss for example. Tolu Smith ate Awaka alive and fouled him out in 13 minutes.

Awaka has logged 10 games where he’s played 20 minutes or fewer and posted 3 or more fouls. Sure, there have been some games where that kind of energy is needed, but that’s not what you’re looking for in relief for your starting big man when he’s either in foul trouble or needing rest.

Fifth Year Ghost

Where, oh where did Josiah-Jordan James go? Triple J is a shell of himself right now, combining for just two points over his last three games and just 3.0 points per game in SEC play. Sure, the ascension of Dalton Knecht has naturally taken the ball out of Josiah’s hands a bit, but all around, he does not look as if he should be a starter right now. He’s tallied four games with multiple steals in SEC play, but if he’s just going to continue to not look to attack the rim when he dribble drives and not be a scoring threat on a team already sparse in that regard, that kind of energy is best maximized off the bench.

There are younger players hungry to make an impact in any capacity like Freddie Dillione who could push for some of those minutes if the rate of Josiah’s play continues. Tennessee just can’t have this much absent offense from the wing if they want to win at Kentucky.

The Good Vibes

Jonas Aidoo First Team All-SEC Watch?

Every year, there’s a breakout sophomore or junior on Tennessee. In 2021-22, it was Santiago Vescovi. Last season, it was Zakai Zeigler. This season, outside of Knecht, obviously, it’s been Jahmai Mashack and Jonas Aidoo.

Let’s start with Aidoo. The big man from Durham withstood some brutal outings early in the season against the country’s best bigs in Zach Edey, Hunter Dickinson, and Armando Bacot, and has rebounded by looking like a First Team All-SEC lock. Tuesday against South Carolina was out of the norm for Aidoo lately in conference play. Heading into Tuesday night, Aidoo was averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game in conference play, and more importantly, he had logged 25+ minutes in four of those six games.

Jahmai Mashack Should Be Starting

What Tennessee isn’t getting from Josiah-Jordan James certainly plays a major role in me saying this, but it’s hard to argue against Mashack’s growth this season. Take away Dalton Knecht and Mashack is second on the team in 3-point percentage at 39.1% on 23 attempts. Mashack was a liability at the free throw line a season ago, shooting 57.9% from the line. Now, he’s well above the national average from the charity stripe, improving his mark over 20% to 78.8% this season. Mashack is unafraid to attack the rim looking to finish, and now that he’s actually making his free throws, he’s finding more and more reasons to be above James in the lineup.

While James has a few inches on Mashack, Mashack is famously long-limbed and has proven he can guard anyone along the perimeter while being a tremendous rebounder for a guard. Mashack is quite possibly the best on-ball defender in the nation while averaging 5.2 points per game on just 18 minutes per game. Give him upwards of 25 minutes, and that’s a near 7.0 scoring output with consistent elite defense, and if you’re worried that what Mashack provides defensively is only possible because he can maximize his role, I don’t believe it would be an issue.

Three Keys to Beating Kentucky

  • Defending the fast break

Tennessee has struggled defending the fast break all season. The Vols rank 10th in fast break points allowed per game in the SEC, and in SEC play, they’re dead last, allowing 13.7. On the flip side, Kentucky dominates the fast break, scoring 15.7 points per game on the fast break, good for 8th in the nation and tops in the SEC. While Kentucky’s fast break pace has tempered a bit in conference play, it’s still their calling card. If Tennessee can hold Kentucky under 10 fast break points on the day, they win the game.

Santi leads the way

Santiago Vescovi has been a bit underrated this season. I fully understand wanting to lump him in with Triple J in the “Ghosts” section, but what Santi has brought to this team has been incredibly valuable despite playing fewer minutes than he’s played the past few seasons and shooting worse than he ever has.

What Santi is doing, however, that he hadn’t been in year’s past is finding ways to create inside the arc and around the rim. Vescovi’s two point shot rate is up and he’s making 55.6% of those shots, and they’re primarily because he’s attacking the hoop. Last season, Vescovi attempted 91 shots inside the 3-point line. 39.6% of those were jumpers or floaters outside the paint with just 33% of those shots coming around the rim. This season, that overall number is down to 18.2% with 57.6% coming around the rim. Despite having career low points per game and 3-point percentage marks, his shot selection on top of lesser usage are big reasons why Santi has posted a career high Offensive Rating.

Vescovi is also a very good passer and great defender with active hands, and if he can come in around 10-15 points shooting 35%+ from three with at least two steals, I think Tennessee wins.

  • A Big Day for Aidoo

Kentucky overall isn’t a good interior defense, but what they do well is score inside. Kentucky ranks second in the SEC with 37.4 points in the paint per game per CBB Analytics but 11th in points in the paint allowed per game at just over 31. Tennessee has also crushed the offensive glass, resulting in the second highest second-chance points per game rate in the conference in SEC play. Kentucky has allowed 12.9 second chance points per game in conference play, 11th in the SEC. If Aidoo stays out of foul trouble, Kentucky could be in a lot of trouble, and as one of the best shot blockers in the nation, Aidoo will make life a bit harder inside for the ‘Cats.

Game Prediction: Vols 77, Kentucky 72