By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Before we get into Tennessee hoops, I wanted to express my sympathies and condolences to Kobe Bryant’s family and friends after he and his daughter Gianna’s sudden and tragic passing on Sunday. I realize so many have been affected by the helicopter crash in California. Athletes, fans and coaches around the world are in mourning. All the victims will be missed.
Moral victories don’t always matter much to the selection committee when the brackets are being drawn up in March. Every bubble team has close losses to good teams, everyone has a trademark win to their name, and everyone can—and will—decorate their respective resumes to proclaim the value their team would bring to March Madness.
Still, this one might count for something.
Tennessee’s 74-68 loss to Kansas on Saturday in Lawrence will be just that when the committee looks at the Volunteers in a few weeks. A close loss to a ranked team on the road. That isn’t the sort of mark that vaults a team into the tournament field, but a performance like that can get a team going if it continues to put that some product on the floor.
The Vols weren’t on most bubbles heading into Saturday. A win at Allen Fieldhouse would’ve changed that immediately. It’ll be an uphill battle to get back to the tournament this year, but Tennessee can make it happen if it continues to build on what it nearly pulled off over the weekend.
After all, who’s undefeated in college basketball? Especially this year (yeah, yeah, I hear you, San Diego State).
Tennessee made mistakes on Saturday that hurt it late in the first half and Kansas took advantage of some mismatches that showed why Kansas is Kansas and why Tennessee is still a rebuilding basketball team.
Kansas’ big man Udoka Azubuike notched a double-double with 18 points and 11 boards, but spent a chunk of the game in foul trouble. Tennessee took advantage of the Jayhawks’ lack of depth in the front court due to Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack missing the game via suspension after Tuesday night’s brawl against Kansas State.
Azubuike put up big numbers while on the floor and Tennessee struggled heavily to stop him once he got the ball in his hands, but Kansas coach Bill Self expressed frustration that Azubuike only took seven shots.
Devon Dotson did his part using his speed and ability to finish at the rim. The All-Big 12 selection had a fantastic game with 22 points and 7 assists, using his ability to drive and dish to Azubuike at times if he could draw Tennessee away from the 7-footer. It’s nothing new for Kansas this year. Azubuike with his size and Dotson with his quickness have carried the bulk of the offense in big games. In November’s overtime win over Dayton those two combined for 60 points with Azubuike outmuscling defenders in the paint and Dotson blowing by opponents for layups.
It was still positive to see Tennessee limit Azubuike as much as it could. The Vols tried to attack late and force him into committing a fifth personal foul, but Azubuike came up with a pair of big blocks, including one in the final minute on Yves Pons that ultimately sealed the win for Kansas. The strategy allowed Tennessee to battle back from a 13-point deficit in one of the toughest places to play in college basketball and make in a three-point game with two minutes to play. Kansas simply executed in other areas and the Vols came up short.
It was encouraging to see Santiago Vescovi attempt to score inside more. In two of his first six games Vescovi didn’t attempt a two-point shot. Six of his nine points on Saturday came on inside shooting, including finishing off a shot through contact while driving the paint. Best of all, Vescovi had a turnover-free game—his first as a Vol.
But Vescovi didn’t score in the second half and is just 4 of 17 on three-point attempts in his last four games. With Jordan Bowden coming alive after halftime, a bigger contribution from Vescovi would’ve helped the Vols down the stretch.
“We’ve got a chance to be a good team,” Rick Barnes said after Saturday’s game. “We need three more guys to give us more than they did today.”
Only three different players scored in the first half and only four connected on field goals with Jalen Johnson being Tennessee’s fifth and final scorer with a free throw in the second half. Josiah-Jordan James shot 0-for-6 from the floor and committed six turnovers.
“It goes back to practice,” said Barnes. “He hasn’t been very good in practice the last two days and I think that’s a direct result of how you play in a game.”
It was a career-high for turnovers for James and his first scoreless game as a Vol after averaging 10.6 points per game through SEC play thus far. He’s seemingly been trying to take a larger role with Tennessee’s offense in the absence of Lamonte Turner, but James is shooting just 24% from the field over his last four games. He’s been one of Tennessee’s best rebounders and a fairly reliable outside shooter, but needs more production to go along with the added expectation in the offense.
Meanwhile John Fulkerson keeps getting better. After not having a double-double through the non-conference schedule, he has three in his last five games, including 15 points and 12 rebounds on Saturday. Seven of those boards were on the offensive glass. Barnes said Tennessee needed more production from Fulkerson following the South Carolina win. Now the Vols are getting that production more consistently.
Tennessee returns to conference play on Tuesday against Texas A&M, which has lost three of four after falling to Oklahoma State on Saturday. 5-2 in the SEC is doable for the Vols. Road trips to Starkville and Tuscaloosa kick off February. Then Tennessee hosts Kentucky and Arkansas. All four of those games are quadrant 1 opportunities that would boost Tennessee’s NET ranking.
Mississippi State and Alabama have made recent appearances on ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s bubble. One way to get on the bubble is to beat other bubble teams. With the SEC being weaker than the seven-bid league it was a season ago, there’s less margin for error for a team like Tennessee battling with several other bubble teams in its own conference.
But that at least means a path to the tournament still exists.