Silverberg: Hardwood Heedes following back-to-back wins for Tennessee

Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes. Credit: UT Athletics.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

After an eventful December, Tennessee is showing some grit while still trying to find its footing in SEC play.

The Volunteers followed up Tuesday’s win over Missouri by edging out South Carolina 56-55 on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. John Fulkerson led Tennessee (10-5, 2-1) with 15 points, 10 rebounds and the game-clinching charge on A.J. Lawson with 1.4 seconds remaining to seal the win for the Vols.

It was a scrappy, defensive struggle that turned into a free throw shooting contest in the second half. Both teams were in the bonus with more than 11 minutes left in the game. Tennessee lost the rebounding battle, shot just 25% from the floor, shot only 19% from three-point range, committed 19 turnovers, yet ultimately won the game at the line.

“We feel against South Carolina, you’ve got to try to get to the line 25-plus times if you can,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “If not, they’re just gonna manhandle you if you don’t drive the ball hard and try to put fouls on them.”

Tennessee shot 22 of 28 from the charity stripe. South Carolina—the SEC’s worst free throw shooting team—went just 13 of 22 for 59%. The Gamecocks went 7 of 15 in the second half.

It’s the first-back-to-back wins for Tennessee in over a month when the Vols beat VCU and Florida A&M. Tennessee lost four of its next five, including an SEC opening loss to LSU on Jan. 4.

Missouri and South Carolina aren’t big wins on the tournament resume, but they would’ve been big losses and they were games Tennessee had to have. Missouri is No. 54 in KenPom and No. 58 in NET rankings as of Sunday afternoon. South Carolina is outside the top 100 in both.

If Tennessee realistically still wants an invitation to dance in March, it needed those games. It got both of them. There isn’t much room for error in the SEC this year and the Vols have areas to correct before visiting Georgia on Wednesday.

One area of concern continues to be Jordan Bowden. Just four days after seemingly emerging from a slump, Bowden sunk right back into one again. The senior shot 1 of 17 from the field—1 of 12 from distance—and finished the game with 6 points. After shooting 46% from the field and knocking down 38% of his three-point attempts last year, Bowden is 33% from the floor and hitting just 29% of his three-pointers this season.

“You’ll have to ask him,” Barnes said when asked about what he was seeing with Bowden’s struggles. “He took one really bad shot today. In the last game I didn’t think he pressed at all. Today he looked like he was pressing again.”

The backcourt has gotten a boost from Santiago Vescovi after arriving from Uruguay and being cleared by the NCAA right before conference play began. He turned in another double figure scoring effort with 13 points, hitting a pair of outside shots and doing the rest of his work at the foul line. After just three games, Vescovi leads the Vols with 14.3 points per game, but is also averaging 7.0 turnovers in 24.7 minutes per contest. That’s one giveaway roughly every three and a half minutes.

Barnes emphasized after Vescovi’s debut against LSU experience and fatigue would play a big factor in getting the freshman acclimated to SEC play and to clean up the turnovers. I still think Vescovi will lower those numbers by March and perhaps sooner, but the Vols could take a bad loss if he’s piling up empty possessions.

The Volunteers do have some things working in their favor. Josiah-Jordan James is still inching towards being more involved with the offense and had 10 points on Saturday on 4-7 shooting. Part of the next step may see him take a larger role if he’s having an efficient day and Bowden is struggling.

Tennessee’s defense has held its last two opponents to under 60 points. With the offense still trying to iron itself out the Vols have been able to close out a pair of slow, defensive games that have brought a little momentum back into the mix.

A big part of that on Saturday was Tennessee’s rim protection. The Vols had 11 blocks against South Carolina, five of them from Yves Pons, two more from Bowden and another pair from Jalen Johnson off the bench. Seeing the guards and wings play more active defense will eventually lead to more takeaways on the entry pass and the perimeter. It may not put the flashiest product on the floor, but a win is a win is a win is a win.

Finally, Fulkerson picked a good time to notch his first double-double of the season for Tennessee. Along with the team-high 15 points, the 10 rebounds were a season-best for him and the charge he drew against Lawson saved the game for Tennessee. Barnes noted if Fulkerson hadn’t taken the charge, Lawson probably would’ve scored.

“I told the guys at halftime he’s got to get more touches, but he’s got to want the ball more,” Barnes said. “He just settles too much off the block and he’s got to learn to get his angles. He’s got to be more active. He can give us a double-double every night. That’s what we need from him, but in some ways we need more. Probably just from a defensive standpoint where there are no defensive breakdowns.”

There are things to improve upon, but there’s also potential for Tennessee if it can tie together the loose ends and clean up some things around the floor. The Vols aren’t playing their best basketball and the postseason chatter has slowed down after the recent stretch, but a win over Georgia might pick that conversation back up again.

The Bulldogs are also 10-5, but 0-2 in SEC play after dropping its their conference opener to Kentucky before getting brushed aside by Auburn on Saturday. Anthony Edwards is the name that jumps off the page for Georgia, and for good reason. He’s averaging 18.7 points per game and looks the part of a guy who’s less than six months away from being taken in the top ten of the NBA Draft.

Beyond Edwards, Rayshaun Hammonds provides a big body for Tom Crean that can get inside and score on the perimeter while also grabbing 8.7 boards per game. Sahvir Wheeler has seen his role increase in the backcourt as the season’s gone on and provides distribution as a nice compliment to Edwards.

Before the back-to-back SEC losses the Bulldogs had won four straight, including a 65-62 win on the road at then-No. 9 Memphis. Oddly enough, Edwards shot just 4 of 17 from the field in that game as Donnell Gresham Jr. and Hammonds combined for 27 points and 20 rebounds to help upset the Tigers.

Tip-off on Wednesday is at 7 PM in Athens. Both teams would benefit from a win after taking a lump or two in conference play already.

SEC week in review (and preview)

Kentucky, LSU and Auburn are the only unbeaten teams remaining in the SEC. The Wildcats shot 60% from long-range in a win over Alabama on Saturday and LSU’s Skylar Mays beat Mississippi State with a jump shot at the buzzer from just inside the arc for his only field goal of the second half. It’s a big start for LSU, which also edged Arkansas earlier in the week. Will Wade’s team has a great chance to start 5-0 with Texas A&M and Ole Miss next on the slate.

Just when it appears Florida is finding its way, the Gators give up 91 points to Missouri in a 16-point loss. The Tigers shot 61% on the night and were 12 of 19 from beyond the arc. It feels so long ago when Florida was ranked in the top ten.

Arkansas held off Ole Miss 76-72 to bounce back from that close loss to LSU. The Rebels aren’t great, but Breein Tyree is going to give them some competitive outings. Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones are a great duo for the Razorbacks. If they’re both clicking on the same night, watch out.

It’s not going to mean much in March, but Texas A&M is 2-1 in conference play after crushing Vanderbilt on Saturday. Buzz Williams is going to need time to shape the program how he wants, but the Aggies are playing good defense and could be pesky for some bubble teams in the SEC later on in the year.

Other notes

Remember when I mentioned last week that Cassius Winston was starting to make Michigan State look like a title contender again? Purdue apparently didn’t get the memo. The Boilermakers crushed Sparty 71-42 on Sunday for the biggest margin of defeat by a Michigan State team ranked in the top ten. Winston was held to 10 points and went 0-fer from distance. Purdue is 10-7, but is still a top 25 KenPom team because of its defense. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Purdue dancing, and the Boilermakers have the build of that First Four team that could find itself playing in the tournament’s second weekend.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams took a lot of heat last week when he said this year’s Tar Heels squad was the least gifted team he’s ever coached. North Carolina lost a lot of production from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team and then lost Cole Anthony this year. After Saturday’s loss to Clemson—the first ever win for the Tigers in Chapel Hill—Williams said he should be fired and shouldered responsibility for the loss after the Tar Heels blew a ten-point lead. In Williams’ defense, he has taken most of the responsibility for his team’s struggles all season. This North Carolina team likely isn’t making the NCAA Tournament, but Williams has probably gotten a bad rap for his comments from earlier in the week.

Less than three weeks ago Ohio State looked like one of the best four teams in college basketball. Now the Buckeyes have lost four straight games and are 1-4 in the Big Ten after losing on the road to Indiana Saturday. Since notching a big non-conference win over Kentucky, Ohio State has failed to score 60 points in each of those four losses to West Virginia, Wisconsin, Maryland and the Hoosiers. Kaleb Wesson has continued to play well, but his efficiency has dropped and his supporting cast hasn’t done enough around him consistently.

That was a quality win for Baylor to go into Allen Fieldhouse and beat Kansas by 12 on Saturday. The Bears held Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike to 15 combined points. That doesn’t seem possible in Lawrence, but it happened. That caps off a strong week for Baylor after winning in Lubbock over Texas Tech on Tuesday. Two Big 12 road wins against ranked teams in the same week will put the country on notice.

Through non-conference play it looked like DePaul had a lot of potential to make some noise with Kansas transfer Charlie Moore and stud forward Paul Reed. The Blue Demons went 12-1 before Big East action started, picking up some nice wins over Iowa and Texas Tech along the way. It’s been tough sledding for DePaul in the past two weeks. It fizzled out down the stretch in its conference opener against Seton Hall, it lost to Providence at home and committed 19 turnovers in a loss to St. John’s on Saturday. The good news is the Big East is full of resume-building opportunities each week. The bad news is 0-3 is a large hill to climb in a conference this deep.

On the flip side of that, the win was huge for the Red Storm. After going to the west coast and beating then-No.16 Arizona in San Francisco without Mustapha Heron, St. John’s lost three straight to open the conference schedule, including a heartbreaker to Butler in the opener. Losing to Georgetown on the road by 21 looked really bad so picking up a Big East win before heading to Providence is what Mike Anderson’s team needed if it’s hoping to gain some traction for the postseason.

For my mid-major note this week I want to highlight the Colonial Athletic Association. I checked out Hofstra for the first time this season in their matchup with Northeastern. Hofstra’s Eli Pemberton and Northeastern’s Jordan Roland put on a show, with the former scoring 24 points and winning the game on an off-balance layup with a half-second remaining, which followed Roland’s game-tying three-pointer with 13 seconds left. Roland is 10th in the nation with 21.6 points per game for the defending CAA champs, which also lost on a buzzer beater to William & Mary the previous weekend. Those three teams, along with Charleston could all potentially win that league. Might be a fun conference tournament to pay attention to when it rolls around.

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