By Jimmy Hyams
Watch Tennessee play Kansas and the Vols look like a potential NCAA Tournament team.
Watch the Vols play Texas A&M and they don’t look like an NIT team.
The Aggies, ranked 13 th among SEC teams in the NCAA NET rankings, out-hustled, out-played and out-toughed Tennessee 63-58 Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena before 17,722 stunned fans.
“I’m not sure we deserved to win,’’ Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
No, the Vols didn’t, not after being dominated on the boards by an incomprehensible 46-21. A&M had more offensive rebounds (23) than UT had total rebounds (21). The Aggies had 16 second-chance points. UT had three – that came on a three at the buzzer — thanks to a measly four offensive rebounds.
What happened to the Tennessee team that just three days ago came oh-so-close to upsetting No. 3 Kansas at famed Allen Fieldhouse?
“We got out-toughed,’’ said Tennessee senior guard Jordan Bowden, who managed 13 points but hit just 1-of-7 from 3-point range.
Bowden admitted that getting out-fought is one of the worst things a player can experience.
But it happened to UT against an 11-point underdog that was one of three SEC teams with a negative rebound margin entering the game.
This was an A&M team fresh off an 11-point home loss to Oklahoma State, an A&M team that lost to Fairfield and Harvard, an A&M team with an NCAA Net ranking of 149 — 95 spots behind Tennessee.
With a solid performance at Kanas, Tennessee had hopes of pushing toward an NCAA Tournament bid.
That hope remains, but it faded mightily against A&M.
“It’s pretty simple,’’ Barnes said in assessing the outcome. “You give up 23 offensive rebounds and get three (four if you count a team rebound) yourself. I’m disappointed in a lot of areas.’’
Barnes said he was “surprised’’ at the rebound differential, adding “we settled too much.’’
Tennessee made 15 of 23 two-point field goal attempts but shot just 6-of-22 on 3s.
“I can’t explain it,’’ Barnes said, “because that’s all we talked about the last two games. I thought the guys understood that.’’
UT also had 13 turnovers, continuing an unwanted trend. The Vols average more turnovers than any team Barnes has coached in Knoxville.
Tennessee blocked a season-high 10 shots and held A&M to 30.4% shooting – usually good enough to win a game. But UT couldn’t overcome the rebounding disadvantage.
While Bowden once again struggled from the perimeter, he was 3-of-5 on two-point tries and made it to the foul line seven times.
“When he starts driving the ball,’’ Barnes said, “it adds so much to his game.’’
But Tennessee didn’t drive it enough, didn’t rebound it enough, and didn’t hit enough 3s.
That dropped Tennessee’s record to 12-8 and decreased their chances of earning an NCAA bid.