By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
It was quite a week for Tennessee newcomer Santiago Vescovi. The Uruguayan arrived on campus in late December, was deemed eligible by the NCAA on Friday and started for the Volunteers in Saturday’s 78-64 loss to LSU in the SEC opener for both teams.
Vescovi provided a much needed spark for Tennessee’s offense. He shot 6 of 9 from deep for 18 points and added six rebounds along with four assists. There were also some growing pains, too as the freshman was stripped on the first possession of his career and finished with nine of Tennessee’s 14 turnovers. LSU committed eight as a team.
Rick Barnes attributed Vescovi’s mistakes to experience and fatigue. Barnes also noted how impressed the coaching staff was with Vescovi’s comfort level in Tennessee’s system during his first practice.
“I was totally surprised,” Barnes said after the LSU game. “As time went on in practice, our mindset was we know after just a couple days it was inevitable he was going to be a starter so we said, ‘Why not do it now?’”
Barnes also reiterated Tennessee’s need for everybody on the floor to be solid each game. The Vols haven’t had that in losing four of their last five games. Jordan Bowden has averaged just seven points per game in those four losses and has shot 20 percent or worse from the three-point range in all four of them. On Saturday he was 1 for 12 from the field and finished with three points.
“We are not asking him to do anything he hasn’t done in the past,” Barnes said of Bowden. “He shouldn’t have shot a couple of shots he took…He has to work through it. I wish I had some magic dust I could sprinkle on him, but I don’t.”
Despite Bowden’s struggles, Josiah-Jordan James and Yves Pons stepped up to help Tennessee on the perimeter. James finished with 15 points while Pons tied Vescovi for a team-high 18 points. They were both 3 of 5 from three-point range. The Vols finished 13 of 26 from outside, but shot just 32 percent on two-pointers. Tennessee didn’t push inside enough and only shot five foul shots in the entire game.
Issues still persist on defense. For the second straight game Tennessee gave up double-digit three-pointers to an opponent shooting 40 percent or better. Wisconsin drained 11 outside shots last weekend and LSU finished with ten on Saturday. The Tigers shot 46 percent from the field and scored 19 points off of those 14 Tennessee giveaways.
“I still think we have a chance to be a good basketball team, but we don’t have a lot of room for error,” said Barnes. “We cannot continue to give up 19 points in a game off turnovers. We have to make people work to score on us and can’t give up easy baskets, where we get the ball and deflect it or are too loose with it.”
LSU is a veteran team that added a five-star forward to its lineup this season and Vescovi’s debut provides a positive outlook on the remainder of the season. The turnovers will get cleaned up. Barnes will make sure of it. Bowden’s slump won’t last forever and freshmen such as Drew Member, Davonte Gaines and Olivier Nkamhoua will continue to improve.
But the Vols are still trending in the wrong direction defensively and on Saturday they lost steam on offense down the stretch after halftime. The bench has to give Tennessee more than just four points in a conference game and can’t fall behind when those players are needed to spell starters to avoid exhaustion. Perimeter defense has to improve and rim protection has to get better.
The Vols head to Missouri on Tuesday. The Tigers lost to Kentucky at Rupp Arena 71-59. Missouri did a nice job at frustrating the Wildcats offensively for most of the first half, but doesn’t have the firepower of its own to contend with the bigger teams in the league. It could pose a decent test for Tennessee in a low-scoring, defensive battle between two teams that prefer to slow the tempo.
SEC week in review
Georgia notched a big win over then-No. 9 Memphis on the road on Saturday. This Bulldogs team is more than just Anthony Edwards with Rayshawn Hammonds eating up rebounds and getting easy points inside. Sahvir Wheeler continues to give Tom Crean valuable minutes off the bench and Donnell Gresham helped the Bulldogs’ offense keep pace with Memphis’ fast style of play.
Auburn remained one of just two undefeated teams in college basketball with a 80-68 win over Mississippi State in Starkville. The Tigers struggled from behind the arc, but J’Von McCormick put up 28 points to pace Bruce Pearl’s team in its SEC opener. The Tigers play complimentary basketball. Players step up when key contributors are struggling and they can turn it up offensively after a slow first half. It’s just a matter of figuring out how good this team can be as the schedule has been relatively weak.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out this Ole Miss team. It loses by a point on the road to Memphis, gets a monster win at home over Penn State, gets destroyed by Oklahoma State and loses a defensive battle against Butler before winning four straight leading up to Saturday’s beatdown loss to Wichita State. The results against strong teams are all over the place. That sort of inconsistency won’t last in the SEC.
Florida and Alabama played a marathon on Saturday with the Gators prevailing 104-98 in double overtime. Kerry Blackshear appears to have settled into his new team with 24 points and 16 boards while Andrew Nembhard provides stability in the backcourt. Florida has a mix of experience and talented youth with an offense that continues to get better as the season goes on. Its next three games against South Carolina, Missouri and Ole Miss will test Florida’s consistency.
Arkansas took care of Texas A&M while Vanderbilt lost another non conference game at home to SMU in overtime. The Razorbacks are continuing to win with a weak schedule with their best win coming at Indiana. Vanderbilt is still finding its way with Jerry Stackhouse, but have a tough conference opener at Auburn on Wednesday.
Michigan State is starting to look like a contender again after its 87-69 win over rival Michigan on Sunday. Cassius Winston lit up the Wolverines for 32 points and nine assists while Sparty shot 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from three-point range. Xavier Tillman is starting to do more in the front court and the Spartans did an excellent job at forcing the issue inside to get to the foul line. After a strong November, Michigan has lost three of its last five. Big man Jon Teske was constantly out of position defensively on Sunday and the Wolverines don’t look the same without Isaiah Livers in the lineup.
Five top ten teams lost in the past week. No. 4 Oregon lost at Colorado on Thursday. No. 5 Ohio State fell to Wisconsin on Friday. On Saturday, No. 7 Louisville lost to Florida State, No. 9 Memphis lost at home to Georgia and No. 10 Villanova fell to Marquette. Those losses could make room for Butler, San Diego State and Michigan State to potentially jump back into the top ten.
Seton Hall deserves a lot of credit for fighting through a tough stretch in December to get to a 2-0 start in Big East play. The Pirates lost to Iowa State and Rutgers in consecutive games and lost Myles Powell to a concussion and Sandro Mamukelashvili fractured his wrist last month. Without those two players Seton Hall beat then No. 7 Maryland at home before Powell returned and helped the Pirates to wins at DePaul and against Georgetown. With the Big East being so deep this year every win will count for Kevin Willard’s team.
It was going to be a challenge for Texas Tech to replace Jarrett Culver. The Red Raiders lost three straight games to three quality opponents in Iowa, Creighton and DePaul. Since then Chris Beard’s squad shut down then-No. 1 Louisville and has won five straight after crushing Oklahoma State on Saturday. Texas Tech has been known for its defense since Beard took over, but shooting 54 percent from the field in a conference opener isn’t bad either.
I realize I sound crazy encouraging you to watch Atlantic-10 basketball, but six teams in the league already have 11 wins or more this season. If anything, make it a point to check out Dayton’s Obi Toppin. The guy is rocketing up draft boards and is a likely lottery pick in a few months.