By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Tennessee began the post-Lamonte Turner era in less than stellar fashion on Saturday, but the same problem persists. The Volunteers are struggling to hit shots from the field while opponents are finding inroads to put points on the board more easily.
Turner’s shooting struggles obviously weren’t helping the offense, but his veteran leadership from the backcourt, his ability to distribute the ball and having a scoring mindset were assets this team no longer has. Another significant loss is Turner’s play on defense. Without Turner on the court, Wisconsin was able to let loose from long range, which led to opening up the paint more for easier inside scoring en route to the Badgers’ 68-48 win.
Davonte Gaines got the start in Turner’s absence while Josiah-Jordan James and Jordan Bowden also shared reps of bringing the ball up the court to run the offense. The three combined to shoot 5-27 from the field and 2-11 from three-point range.
Rick Barnes said before the game a lot of teams would like to be 8-3, but this type of 8-4 feels a little different with SEC play looming.
“We’ve got to get better guard play,” Barnes said following the loss. “To have more success, we’ve got to get better decisions made by our guards.”
Gaines did some good things defensively, picking up a pair of steals and stayed active on the perimeter and also added four rebounds and a block, but Wisconsin was constantly finding good looks from outside and went 11-26 from behind the arc. Dmitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl shot 8-16 and combined for 38 points for the Badgers.
Tennessee even struggled at the foul line. After shooting 23-23 in their past two games, the Vols went 10-19 on Saturday.
SEC play starts this weekend when the Vols host LSU on Saturday. The Tigers had a frustrating non conference season. They lost to VCU in November in a tight one and blew a big second half lead in a loss to then-No. 15 Utah State. After four straight wins LSU was beaten handily by East Tennessee State in Baton Rouge before dropping another close game to USC at the Staples Center.
LSU handed Liberty its first loss on Sunday with a 74-57 win at home and the Tigers beat the Flames by getting easy points in the paint and turning turnovers into points, which could hurt Tennessee if its backcourt woes continue. Tennessee had 17 turnovers on Saturday to just 16 made field goals.
Will Wade returns several players from last season’s Sweet Sixteen squad. Tremont Waters and Naz Reid are gone, but Waters didn’t play in last year’s win over the Vols anyway. Ja’vonte Smart scored 29 points in Waters’ absence and the Vols held Reid to just one point in LSU’s 82-80 overtime win back in February.
Skylar Mays is back and is averaging over 15 points per game. Emmitt Williams is healthy this year and averaging 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds. Smart and Darius Days are both back and averaging in double figures, and five-star forward Trendon Watford has averaged 12.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game through the first 12 games of his freshman campaign.
As a team the Tigers are seventh in the nation in field goal percentage (50%), fourth in the SEC with 81.1 points per game and are fourth in the league in rebounding. LSU ranks 15th in the nation in offensive efficiency, per KenPom and plays a significantly faster pace than Wisconsin while also taking care of the basketball.
The transition and turnover games are going to be key. The Vols need more scoring out of their guards, but also need to limit empty possessions against an opportunistic LSU team that can make opponents pay for coughing up the rock.
Game time is set for noon on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. 99.1 The Sports Animal will carry the Vol Network’s pregame coverage beginning at 11:30 up to tip-off and through postgame coverage.
SEC week in review (and preview)
I already mentioned LSU’s win over Liberty. That leaves Auburn and San Diego State as the only remaining undefeated teams in college basketball. Auburn cruised against Lipscomb on Sunday and opens SEC play at Mississippi State Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs play their last non conference game Monday night against Kent State.
Kentucky got a monster win against Louisville at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Sure, it was at home, but the Wildcats needed that win after dropping back-to-back neutral site games to Utah and Ohio State. Louisville didn’t play its best game and will be fine in the long run, but the Cardinals took some questionable shots down the stretch and struggled from the foul line in a 78-70 overtime loss to their in-state rival.
Arkansas has been off to a strong start under first-year coach Eric Musselman, but the schedule before this weekend gave no indication of how good the Razorbacks are. Sunday was Arkansas’ first true test and it passed in a big way with a late rally to beat Indiana in Bloomington 71-64 on Sunday. The Razorbacks are 11-1 and look strong defensively, but can explode on offense with its backcourt duo of Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones. The two combined for 45 points and hit 10 three-pointers. Defense has been Arkansas’ strength thus far, but if it continues to shoot well it could compete for a double bye in the SEC tournament.
Just when it looks like South Carolina is starting to come together, Frank Martin’s team lays an egg. The Gamecocks followed up their big win over Virginia with a 63-56 loss to Stetson (ranked 315th in KenPom) at home. After putting up a career-high 22 points against the Cavaliers, Jair Bolden was held scoreless on 0-4 shooting from the field. Leading scorer A.J. Lawson was held to half of his season average with just eight points in Monday’s loss.
South Carolina opens SEC play against Florida next Tuesday night. Outside of conference play, two SEC teams face ranked non conference opponents on Saturday. Georgia visits No. 9 Memphis and Ole Miss heads to Kansas to take on No. 24 Wichita State.
What’s happening elsewhere
West Virginia’s win over then-No.2 Ohio State on Sunday was awfully impressive. After the Buckeyes got off to a hot start early, the Mountaineers locked in defensively down the stretch. Ohio State shot just 5-24 from the field after halftime and committed 22 turnovers in a really physical game in Cleveland. The Mountaineers are now 11-1 and checked in at No. 16 in this week’s AP Poll. Their only loss is to St. John’s, which doesn’t look nearly as bad now as it did at the time.
The Big East begins conference play on Monday night with Villanova hosting Xavier and DePaul welcoming Seton Hall. This league looked incredibly deep through the non conference schedule. In his latest bracketology, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has eight teams from the league getting into the NCAA Tournament. Nine of those teams look like they could be tournament-worthy (sorry, Providence), but the league schedule will potentially knock a team or two out of the mix by sheer math. I recommend keeping tabs on the Big East this year. It should be fun.
For a potential mid-major resume builder on Monday, watch out for Yale traveling to North Carolina. The Tar Heels aren’t nearly the same team without Cole Anthony, but it would be a nice road win for the Bulldogs to beat an ACC team in Chapel Hill. Jordan Bruner and Paul Atkinson are a great front court combination that plays with great chemistry together and Azar Swain paces the offense well from the guard spot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, North Carolina.
Enjoy the week in college basketball and a Happy New Year to all.
See you in 2020.