By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
The first half wasn’t anything to write home about and the news that followed changed the course of the season, but Tennessee shot well in the second half to put away Jacksonville State 75-53 on Saturday.
Tennessee shook off a lengthy scoring drought in the first half to take the lead before the break. The Vols then separated themselves from the Gamecocks en route to Rick Barnes’ 700th career win.
After the game Lamonte Turner announced he would be having season-ending shoulder surgery. Turner missed time last season due to the injury and his level of play has dropped this year while dealing with the issue. The loss leaves Tennessee with a gaping hole at the point guard position.
Santiago Vescovi officially became a member of the Tennessee basketball program on Monday as a midseason enrollee. The native of Uruguay is still awaiting clearance procedures from the NCAA and the conference before he can play. Barnes said before the Jacksonville State game it’s “highly unlikely” Vescovi plays this year, but the loss of Turner might change that.
Tennessee gets a bit of a break with Christmas and won’t have a midweek game before hosting Wisconsin on Saturday. How the Vols handle the point guard situation will shape the direction of their offense.
Moving Josiah-Jordan James to that spot makes the most sense. Options are limited, but if Tennessee is going to keep pushing for an NCAA Tournament bid someone is going to have to step up into a new role.
James, Devontae Gaines and Jalen Johnson will all likely see an increase in minutes. Yves Pons could see a shift in his role as well depending on what type of lineup Barnes and the rest of his staff want to go with. Olivier Nkamhoua and Drew Pember may have to shoulder more in the front court as well.
What Tennessee losses in Turner on the defensive side is a solid on-ball defender who has been a key cog in a much improved defense from a season ago. Last year the Vols ranked 42nd in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. This season through eleven games Tennessee ranks 19th. It has been as high as 12th this season.
The change doesn’t come at an ideal time. The Vols host a Wisconsin team on Saturday that ranks No. 51 in KenPom, but has been off to a rocky start. The Badgers are 0-5 away from Madison and already have losses to New Mexico, Richmond and Rutgers. Wisconsin did finally gain eligibility for Ohio State transfer Micah Potter, who had 12 points and five rebounds in just 13 minutes during his Wisconsin debut in Saturday’s win over Milwaukee.
A win on Saturday won’t greatly boost Tennessee’s resume, but the Vols can’t afford a loss to a team that could potentially struggle through a deep Big Ten conference.
Tennessee will open SEC play the following Saturday against LSU.
The Vols have significantly less room for error entering conference play than in the past two seasons. Tennessee will need to pile up wins in the toss-up games as the bubble watch progresses towards March. How the Vols handle the backcourt situation will play a big part in their quest for a tournament bid.
SEC week in review (and preview)
South Carolina saved some face for the conference this week with a win over Virginia in Charlottesville, but it wasn’t the best week for the league.
Kentucky lost to a Utah team that ranks No. 107 in KenPom on Wednesday before falling in the national spotlight to Ohio State on Saturday night. The Wildcats have lost three games before Christmas for the first time since 2013-14. They made the national title game that season, but the three losses that year were to No. 2 Michigan State, No. 20 Baylor and No. 18 North Carolina by a combined 14 points. Evansville and Utah don’t exactly fit the same criteria.
LSU took a beating at home to former Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes and ETSU earlier in the week before losing to USC on Saturday. Vanderbilt fell to Sister Jean and Loyola Chicago on Wednesday and Florida took its second loss in its past three games after losing to Utah State this weekend.
Georgia needed double overtime to survive SMU in Athens and Mississippi State closed out the weekend with a loss to New Mexico State.
Auburn remained undefeated with a nice win over N.C. State before waxing Lehigh on Saturday. The Tigers are one of just three teams without a loss this season, joining Liberty and San Diego State. Duquesne fell from the ranks of the unbeaten with a loss to UAB on Sunday.
The jury is still out on a couple of teams as well. Arkansas is 10-1, but hasn’t really played anyone. The Razorbacks’ best win is a Georgia Tech squad that ranks outside the top 100 in KenPom. Ole Miss got a nice win over Penn State earlier this season and competed well in a road loss at Memphis, but the Rebels got waxed by Oklahoma State and lost to Butler. The Razorbacks will have a chance to pad its resume against Indiana on Sunday, but neither team really took advantage of the non conference slate with SEC play on the horizon.
The final week before conference play presents some fun matchups. Georgia hosts Georgia Southern Monday night before the league takes a break until Saturday.
Along with Tennessee’s game against Wisconsin, Kentucky will also host Louisville on Saturday in a game the Wildcats could really use to bounce back from a lackluster start to the season.
On Sunday LSU hosts undefeated Liberty as the Flames look for their second SEC win of the season after beating Vanderbilt last weekend. I’ve mentioned Arkansas’ road trip to Bloomington Sunday night, and Alabama hosts a Richmond team that’s been solid offensively and is off to a 10-2 start.
Conference play begins January 4. Enjoy the basketball and Merry Christmas, everyone.