Tennessee basketball: Small ball a necessity with Olivier Nkamhoua injured

Feb 1, 2022; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes before the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2022; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes before the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s a win with a loss. Tennessee basketball enjoyed its fifth straight SEC victory last Saturday at the South Carolina Gamecocks, a streak that began when Rick Barnes switched out John Fulkerson for Uros Plavsic in the starting lineup at center. He seemed to finally have his rotation nailed down.

Crucial to that rotation was Olivier Nkamhoua at the four, who could defend the stretch four and play under the basket. With Brandon Huntley-Hatfield still developing, he was really the only player who could do that. Well, it looks like the Vols will now have to do without him for a while.

Nkamhoua, who got hurt in Tennessee basketball’s win Saturday, is set to have ankle surgery, which will likely keep him out for the season, according to Grant Ramey of GoVols247. That severely limits the Vols in the post given the lack of proven depth with other players.

Outside of Fulkerson, Huntley-Hatfield is the only other player down low averaging over 10 minutes a game, and he’s at 10.5 minutes. So what’s Barnes going to do? Well, he’s really only got one choice at this point. Small ball will have to be the focus.

Over the past few games, Barnes has run Zakai Zeigler and Kennedy Chandler on the court at the same time. They both were on there when UT went on its run in the second half against South Carolina. It resulted in Chandler having a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists and Zeigler hitting four three-pointers for 18 points.

At this point, Barnes should spend most of the game with both point guards on the floor together. It’s actually a good time to do it because he’s now seen what they can do. Meanwhile, Josiah-Jordan James is hitting his stride and starting to look like the five-star he was recruited to be three years ago.

James could occupy the four given his athleticism. He just had three blocks last game, and 6’6″ is tall enough at the college level to handle that. Plavsic and Fulkerson can still switch out at the five. Santiago Vescovi is UT’s best shooter and a solid distributor, so he’s fine moving over to the wing.

When it comes to rest, Tennessee basketball will require some flexibility. Obviously, Plavsic and Fulkerson can sub in and out for each other. If Chandler or Zeigler goes out, then Justin Powell lis the guy to come in. A 6’6″ sharpshooter with point guard skills, Powell can spell Vescovi or James at the three and the four.

Basically, play Chandler and Zeigler together. Keep one on the floor at all times, and keep Fulkerson or Plavsic on the floor at all times. Powell comes in when Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi or James goes to the bench. That allows at least a seven-man rotatin of proven guys for Barnes.

However, if he’s going to play small, he’ll want to run tempo, meaning he needs more than seven guys. This is where Huntley-Hatfield and Victor Bailey Jr. become crucial. After averaging 11 points last year, Bailey has seen his minutes decrease from 24.8 a game to 11.5 a game. It’s time Barnes put him in more.

At 6’4″, Bailey was once a four-star, he is a combo guard and he is in his third year under Barnes. He should be playing a lot more, and given the injuries, he’s got to play more now. With him, Barnes doesn’t just have to turn to Powell to spell the backcourt.

Finally, Huntley-Hatfield’s minutes have to increase. He’s the one stretch-four on the roster, and while he shouldn’t be relied on yet for too much, Barnes will have to put him in to give his small-ball lineup some rest. Maybe he’s not ready, but at this point, Barnes has no choice.

Next. Vol basketball's all-time depth chart. dark

Taking all this into account, Tennessee basketball has the personnel to beat teams without Nkamhoua. They just have to make a few adjustments to account for depth. If Barnes does that, they could be fine the rest of the way.