Tennessee basketball wins season-opener 75-43 vs. Tennessee Tech: Three takeaways

In what was the season-opener for both teams, Tennessee basketball defeated the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles 75-43 Monday to get 2022-23 underway. Rick Barnes’ eighth team, ranked No. 11 in both polls, came in as defending SEC Tournament Champions against the fourth TTU team led by John Pelphrey.

The Vols and Golden Eagles were locked in a defensive struggle early on, but that struggle favored UT, as they led 12-1 more than eight minutes into the game. However, Tennessee Tech made it interesting, only trailing by six with under two minutes to go in the first half. UT then went on a 5-0 run and took control in the second half.

Up next for Tennessee basketball is a trip to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Colorado Buffaloes on Sunday while Tennessee Tech next hosts the Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs this Thursday. Here are three things we learned from the Vols’ victory to start the year.

1. Aggressive defense set the tone.

That 12-1 score eight minutes into the game was vintage Rick Barnes. The offense hadn’t gotten into a rhythm yet, so the defense was dominant. That was the case for the unit all night, and it wasn’t just the shooting percentages. UT consistently forced turnovers, and they finished with 22 on the night.

Rocky Top had an amazing 17 steals in the game. Santiago Vescovi, Tyreke Key and Jahmai Mashack each led the way with three. Zakai Zeigler added two, which helped him score 12 points despite a poor shooting night, along with Josiah-Jordan James. Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua each had one, and Nkamhoua added two blocks.

2. Offense was too inconsistent early.

Another side of that 12-1 score is the obvious fact that Tennessee basketball struggled on offense early. The Vols had a relatively inconsistent night, particularly in the first half, which they finished with only 27 points. Now, they did have 48 in the second half, but that doesn’t change the original struggles that plagued this team.

UT finished the game 26-of-65, or just 40 percent, from the field, and 14-of-44, or just 31.8 percent, from three. Both are mediocre to below average. They also had 15 turnovers. Now, what helped is that they hit all nine free throw attempts, and they did have 21 assists. Zeigler and Vescovi each had five, and Mashack had three off the bench.

3. Tyreke Key knows how to score.

Only two players scored double figures. Zeigler was one of them. The other was transfer Tyreke Key. Once again, Key came off the bench, but he was the star, scoring 17 points while going 5-of-10 from the field and 4-of-8 from three. This builds off of the 26-point performance he had in the Vols’ exhibition win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

There were legitimate questions about Key since he hadn’t played in a year and struggled the previous season he was on the floor, 2020-2021 with the Indiana State Sycamores, due to a shoulder injury, but he looks healthy now. If that’s the case, Tennessee basketball is in even better shape than we thought.