Tennessee basketball already proving to have more depth, better defense

Tennessee's Oliver Nkamhoua (13) and Tennessee's Yves Pons (35) celebrate after defeating Colorado 56-47 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020Kns Ut Colorado Mbb
Tennessee's Oliver Nkamhoua (13) and Tennessee's Yves Pons (35) celebrate after defeating Colorado 56-47 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020Kns Ut Colorado Mbb /

Rick Barnes’ Tennessee basketball Volunteers are much deeper than last year.

In 2019-2020, Tennessee basketball went 5-7 when Yves Pons scored in single digits and 4-6 when he shot worse than 50 percent from the field. They went 0-6 when John Fulkerson shot under 50 percent.

This year, in each of their first two games, Fulkerson shot under 50 percent despite scoring double figures, and Pons had single digits while shooting under 50 percent. That should have been a recipe for a sure loss.

However, despite facing two Power Five opponents, Tennessee basketball is 2-0. Oh, we should also note that the Vols did this without their other top scorer from last year, Jordan Bowden. You would think Pons and Fulkerson needed to step up the scoring more.

So what’s causing this? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Rick Barnes can go much deeper, other players have improved, and he has the Vols doing all the little things right. In both games, the Vols won the turnover battle, they shot over 70 percent from the free throw line, and they held their opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field.

Simply put, defense has gotten significantly better from last year’s 17-14 team. Pons, to be fair, picked up where he left off as the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year with 10 rebounds against Colorado and then 2 blocks against Cincinnati.

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Meanwhile, Josiah-Jordan James, fully healthy, has come away with three steals each game. Fulkerson also had a double-digit rebound game against Colorado. Santiago Vescovi has 8 assists and just 4 turnovers through his first two games for a great ratio. He also had a block against Cincinnati and 2 steals against Colorado.

These little things allowed for Tennessee basketball to overcome those scoring issues. In fact, that allowed them to overcome them despite a couple of the newcomers making minimal impact in so far this year.

Graduate transfer E.J. Anosike hasn’t found his shot through two games, averaging 3 points a game on 10 percent shooting from the field right now. Keon Johnson, a highly coveted five-star had 5 turnovers and just 2 points in his opener. He did have 7 points against Colorado but only shot 33 percent from the field.

That doesn’t mean depth hasn’t helped, though. Oregon Ducks transfer Victor Bailey Jr., who sat out last year due to NCAA eligibility rulings, is clearly a boost. While he’s not shooting the ball well from the field, he is averaging 7.5 points a game, and he has only turned the ball over once through two games.

Jaden Springer, meanwhile, another coveted five-star, had 6 points in the opener and 11 against Cincinnati. He’s shooting 5-of-11 from the field and was over 80 percent from the foul line against Cincinnati. Add in the fact that he got a steal in each of the Vols’ first two games and is averaging 3 rebounds as a guard, and it’s clear to see his value.

Speaking of little things like that, we should mention that Johnson had a steal in the opener and a block and 6 rebounds against Cincinnati. As a result, he’s another guy managing to focus on defense and rebounding while struggling to find his offensive groove.

Taking all this into account, Barnes is clearly able to go deeper than last year because everybody, even if they struggle to score, can do their part defensively. Meanwhile, being able to go deeper allows Tennessee basketball to stay fresh offensively.

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This is how, despite losing their best scorer from last year and not having great efficiency from their two best returning scorers, the Vols could be 2-0 against solid competition. If the offense does find its groove, this team could become among the best in the nation.