Well this was a nice start for Tennessee basketball. In their first Battle 4 Atlantis game at Paradise Island, the Vols beat the Butler Bulldogs 71-45, their first game in a week. They did it without Josiah-Jordan James in the lineup and used a dominant second half to assert their dominance and finally live up to preseason expectations.
Rick Barnes’ team, ranked No. 22 in the AP Poll and No. 21 in the Coaches Poll, didn’t score the first three minutes of the game and didn’t take their first lead until less than 90 seconds to go in the first half. That was part of a 10-0 run to close out the half with a 28-23 lead. It extended to a 14-0 run in the second half. Butler cut it to 36-34, but UT then went on a 17-1 run.
With the win, UT improves to 3-1 and will next face the USC Trojans Thursday. Butler falls to 3-2 and will face the BYU Cougars Thursday. USC beat BYU Wednesday. Here are three things we learned from Tennessee basketball’s first victory at Imperial Arena in Nassau, Bahamas.
Suffocating defense was the story.
The philosophy Barnes has lived by for years about offense coming and going but defense always staying rang true in this one. UT struggled severely offensively in the first half, but they stayed in the game with their elite defense, and that didn’t change once their offense went off.
Welcome to a blowout and how it happens. The Vols held Butler to 31.9 percent shooting from the three-point line, and they forced 23 turnovers thanks to 13 steals. Coming off the bench, Zakai Zeigler was the star, as he had three steals and scored 10 points. Jahmai Mashack and Jonas Aidoo broke out with two steals off the bench. Santiago Vescovi also had three.
Two high-profile starters finally emerged.
Joining Zeigler to have three steals was part of Vescovi’s breakout game for this year. He hadn’t been himself as the dead-eye shooter for Tennessee basketball to this point, but with Josiah-Jordan James out, he stepped up. Vescovi had 13 points, going 3-of-7 from the three-point line and 5-of-9 overall.
Meanwhile, the Vols’ freshman star finally broke out. Julian Phillips had 11 points and six rebounds. Although he was only 3-of-8 from the field, he was aggressive and went to the foul line enough, shooting 5-of-6 from there. He and Uros Plavsic with six boards each and Olivier Nkamhoua with nine points helped UT dominate inside.
Ball movement could improve.
Part of this was due to no James playing, but the ball movement wasn’t where it needs to be. Zeigler was still solid and had five assists, and Tyreke Key had nine points, but no starter had more than three assists. The team as a whole finished with 16 assists.
At the same time, Tennessee basketball had 16 turnovers. Zeigler, with his five assists, had four of the turnovers. The Vols made up for that with their defense and aggressive play, and it’s not the worst stat line, but it’s something they can’t afford to have happen against more athletic teams.