Even with Tennessee basketball’s rough home loss to the Kentucky Wildcats, the Vols have shown clear improvement over the past three games.
They hit a low point with a home loss to the Texas A&M Aggies in Uros Plavsic’s debut. Then it was revealed that Josiah-Jordan James needed some time off due to an injury, and Tennessee basketball hit a three-game losing with its loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
But since then, Rick Barnes has adjusted, and the Vols have shown an impressive amount of resiliency. Even with a 77-64 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats at home over the past weekend, there is clear evidence that UT is getting better across the board.
One of the biggest assets for Rocky Top is that Barnes has found a way to adjust to his opponent. Tennessee basketball beat the Alabama Crimson Tide with Plavsic getting his first start, and though he got in foul trouble, Barnes still went to Drew Pember and Olivier Nkamhoua off the bench for size.
A week later, the Vols blew out the Arkansas Razorbacks. In that one, Barnes went small, similar to what he planned to do at the beginning of the year before Lamonte Turner’s season-ending shoulder surgery. He started Jalen Johnson, moved Yves Pons back to the four and had John Fulkerson playing the five.
The result was a coming out game for Santiago Vescovi, as he had 20 points and eight assists and a great shooting night for the team overall. By the way, they shot over 50 percent from the field while going solid from the three-point line but only hitting six from outside. That means they did it by being efficient and moving the ball.
Another big part of the Vols’ issues during their losing streak is, with the new rotation, they struggled to rebound. Well, they outrebounded both Alabama and Arkansas by nine and 11, and although UK outrebounded them, it was only by four. Also, without James, they have a rebounding disadvantage. So it’s a big deal that they were able to keep it that close with such a big team.
Taking all this into account, the message is clear. The Vols are improving. Vescovi is coming on, Fulkerson and Pons still know how to be aggressive down low, and different young guys are finding ways to step up. Nkamhoua had 10 points against the Hogs.
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Most importantly, though, is that Jordan Bowden seems to be finding his shot again. It was gone the minute Turner began to lose a bit back in the fall. His three-point shot is still slumping, but he has dropped 20, 16 and 16 the past three games. And he did hit two of seven on Tuesday. So he’s finding ways to be effective.
What’s clear is the Vols are coming together without James, and it’s not like they are better without him. On the contrary, they actually had a very solid defensive performance against Kentucky, another piece of evidence of them improving. The problem was Kentucky getting red-hot and UT not being able to cash in on fast breaks, where James is a huge asset.
So when James returns, this team’s improvements could all of a sudden become dramatic. That means, in the midst of this rough schedule, the Vols still might have something to play for down the stretch.
It’s very clear that Tennessee basketball was going to have a major fall-off with so much talent from last year gone. Add in Turner’s season-ending shoulder surgery, James’ injury and the unexpected twists with Vescovi and Plavsic, and the growing pains would be even deeper.
Things are now stabilizing, though, and improvement is clearly showing. A return from James, fully healthy, could be just the shot in the arm they need to finish incredibly strong. Barnes should be trusted as a coach to be able to facilitate that. We’ll see if it happens.