By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
No matter which stat is highlighted, it doesn’t make it look any better for Tennessee.
Whether it’s the 4-26 shooting from long distance, the 25% clip from the floor or the 3-21 combined from seniors Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, Tennessee fell flat in an offensively challenged 51-47 loss to Memphis on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The loss snapped a 31-game win streak at home for the Volunteers (7-2), who jumped out to an early 12-point lead in the first half only to see Memphis rally to take a one-point lead into the break.
The Tigers (9-1) overcame a slow start after scoring just five points in the game’s first 12 minutes. Memphis improved to 7-0 in games played without star center James Wiseman, who is still serving a 12-game suspension for accepting money from Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway to help Wiseman’s family move from Nashville to Memphis when Wiseman was still in high school.
Hardaway wasn’t the head coach at the time, but was deemed a booster by the NCAA.
The 25% shooting is the lowest output in Rick Barnes’ tenure at Tennessee. The 47 points are the fewest in a game for the Vols since a 60-49 loss to South Carolina in March of 2015.
“I don’t know, because we had some good looks that we would like to have every night,” Barnes said after the game. “But when your three top scorers go 6-for-30, it’s tough.”
Josiah-Jordan James–the first McDonald’s All-American to play for Tennessee since Tobias Harris, was the lone bright spot for the offense, but the freshman did most of his damage in the first half on his way to a career high 14 points.
“He’s worked really hard at shooting the ball, and I thought Josiah played his best game in terms of his confidence and his demeanor in terms of how he was playing,” said Barnes. “I thought he was good today in terms of trying to do everything he could.”
Tennessee needs more out of James and will continue to need more from him as the season goes along. He’s already Tennessee’s leading rebounder at 6.6 boards per game, but on a team without a single player averaging 13 points a night, the Vols need everyone contributing on offense.
Bowden and Turner are supposed to be the go-to scorers on the roster, but when both of them struggled from the field nobody picked up the slack to make enough of a difference on the scoreboard.
“I have confidence in them in their new roles, and they’re going to have to figure it out, too,” Barnes said when asked about getting consistency out of his two senior guards. “As a group we’ll figure it out, but we had some execution breakdowns, too, at the end. And again, when you’re in a possession game like this, we have to be mature enough to understand that we have to make them all count. But those guys are going to need to figure that out.”
3-21 won’t happen every night, but Tennessee needs to elevate its offensive production with just three games remaining before the start of SEC play. Turner is averaging 12.8 points and 7.1 assists per game, but his 23% three-point clip is the worst of his career by a country mile.
Bowden continues to be the Vols’ best outside weapon, but in Tennessee’s three toughest games against Florida State, VCU and Memphis Bowden has shot just 3-14 from behind the arc. He had a strong performance in the win against then-No. 20 Washington with 18 points on 3-5 shooting from distance. And his second half eruption led Tennessee’s comeback victory over Murray State after Bowden finished with 26 points.
With Jordan Bone gone, Turner has naturally stepped in as the role of the distributor while trying to maintain his presence as a scorer. The latter hasn’t been there consistently though Turner’s ability as a defender continues to be a major asset for the Vols. Should the Vols be able to get more production out of Bowden, James or Yves Pons, Turner could continue to refine his role. Tennessee needs those 12.8 points he gives the Vols per game, but not at a 28% rate. It needs efficiency from the point guard position.
Looking at the big picture, Tennessee should be all right. This team, as expected, has taken a step back from the squad that held the No. 1 ranking in the country for four weeks a season ago. However, Tennessee still boasts a pair of solid wins over Washington and VCU, and the team’s only two losses are to No. 11 Memphis and No. 19 Florida State. The Vols dropped to 21st in Monday’s AP Poll.
Monday also revealed the season’s first NET Rankings. The Vols check in at No. 25, two spots ahead of Florida State and a spot ahead of LSU, which opens the conference schedule against Tennessee on Jan. 4.
Tennessee still ranks No. 22 in the KenPom ratings and is 12th nationally in defensive efficiency. Should the Vols find the production on offense they’re looking for then more wins will follow.
Up next is a road trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats Wednesday night. Cincinnati is 6-4 on the year and has dropped its last two. Last weekend to Xavier, and a head scratching loss to Colgate thanks to an odd decision by reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jarron Cumberland.
There’s been some growing pains with new head coach John Brannen, but this is still a talented team that returns three starters from last year’s roster, plus it’s added a transfer in center Chris Vogt, who averages 12.9 points and seven rebounds per game.
It will be Tennessee’s first true road game of the season. Tip-off is set for 7 o’clock and 99.1 The Sports Animal will have coverage beginning at 6:30 ET.