On Wednesday against the South Carolina Gamecocks, Tennessee basketball didn’t have starting guard Josiah-Jordan James, the glue guy of the backcourt who was once a five-star. Keon Johnson, a five-star freshman and another starting guard, got into foul trouble and had five turnovers.
In spite of those issues, the Vols won 93-73 in dominating fashion. This came a week after they beat the Georgia Bulldogs 89-81 without Yves Pons, one of their two starting senior forwards and the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
These wins would seem to point to the incredible depth of Rick Barnes’ team. However, in between those two games, at full strength, Tennessee basketball lost to the LSU Tigers 78-65 on the road. In fact, their last two losses were at full strength, as they lost to the Ole Miss Rebels 52-50 with everybody as well.
This is what makes the Vols, who are 15-5 and 8-5 in the SEC, so hard to figure out. One day, you’re looking at a team that can’t figure out a simple matchup zone defense. Another day, you’re looking at a team that scores 93 points and hits nine three-pointers against a matchup zone with one starting guard out and another in foul trouble.
One day, you’re looking at a team whose half-court defense can’t defend anything under the basket. Another day, you’re looking at a team that will be without its best interior defender but denies every passing lane inside and dominates in transition. They can win every which way possible but still have inexplicable losses.
How can you analyze the Vols when all of this is happening? It’s impossible, and it means this team, despite almost certainly being out of contention for an SEC Regular Season Championship, could still be a Final Four contender.
There is one constant in all of this, to be fair. Tennessee basketball is 0-3 in games in which Jaden Springer, the third five-star on this team, plays five minutes or fewer. He’s the top scoring guard on Rocky Top, and the offense often goes as he goes, regardless of who else is in there.
Even John Fulkerson, who finally made his resurgence with 19 points, doesn’t have to score for UT to win. He just has to be a factor. The same holds true for Santiago Vescovi, who came off the bench to hit two three-pointers and score eight points. If Johnson is dominating defensively, it’s a bonus. Pons being himself defensively makes this team nearly unstoppable.
We should note that the Vols’ losses can all be explained away too. As we mentioned, three of those games were without Springer. Kermit Davis’ complex matchup zone is tough for any team to figure out, but one that is made up of all freshmen and sophomores in the guard rotation is always going to struggle. Pons was still banged up against LSU, so he couldn’t get up.
Now, as we’ve mentioned, Tennessee basketball can overcome little things like all of those. However, at the same time, they have to avoid mistakes elsewhere to do it. Too often, we don’t know where the mistakes will come from, and they often come from the veterans. If they are fully healthy by March, though, it’ll be irrelevant. They’ll still be too elite to not go far.