By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Note: If you haven’t already checked it out, you can listen to my new podcast, Behind the Arc, through the Sports Radio WNML app and here on our website under the AUDIO tab.
Tennessee dropped its third straight on Saturday with a 86-73 loss to Mississippi State in Starkville. The Volunteers led by six at the half before a 10-0 run by the Bulldogs put Mississippi State ahead for good shortly after the break. The Bulldogs shot 69% from the field in the second half, were 4 of 5 from behind the arc, and hit 18 of 20 free throws.
As evidenced by its come-from-behind win against Florida last Tuesday, this is what Mississippi State does. Saturday was its fourth win of the season when trailing at halftime. The Vols had been 10-0 when leading at the break this season.
Tennessee opted to insert Uros Plavsic into the starting lineup with freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James unavailable with a groin injury. James’ absence led to a heavier workload for Jalen Johnson in the rotation and he finished with 13 points on 4 of 7 shooting in 29 minutes. Plavsic put up a career-high 16 points in his first start in a Tennessee uniform.
But the Vols didn’t get enough offensively from the usual suspects. Yves Pons hit a pair of outside shots, but those were his only six points of the afternoon. John Fulkerson entered the game third in the SEC in field goal percentage, but shot just 2 of 9 from the floor and also finished with six points.
Plavsic’s offensive day was nice, but he and Fulkerson combined for eight of Tennessee’s 24 rebounds as the Vols once again lost the battle on the boards. Interior defense has continued to be an issue for Tennessee and Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua both at times have been a defensive liability.
“I thought Fulky was not a factor today. He got manhandled down there. Olivier, same thing. Even Uros,” Rick Barnes said after the loss. “You can’t play behind somebody when they’re right at the rim. We got caught with our big guys doing that.”
“Two times for certain, our post player didn’t recognize the defense we were in. If they did, they didn’t execute it. But we just have to play two halves.”
Arguably Tennessee’s most positive stat of the day was giving up only eight points to Mississippi State off of just six Tennessee turnovers. Santiago Vescovi had three of those, but was more balanced with five assists and tied for a team-high 16 points. Three of which came off this rather impressive sequence in the second half.
Behind the back pass off a drive.
Rotate back to the perimeter.
— Joel Silverberg (@JoelSilverberg) February 1, 2020
There’s no denying Vescovi’s talent and versatility, and it appears his came is starting to grow within Tennessee’s system as he becomes more acclimated to SEC basketball. Keep in mind this is a player who arrived in Knoxville just days before he made his first career start against LSU. Vescovi shot 4-9 from 3 on Saturday and also added four rebounds.
It’s been a point of emphasis Tennessee needed to drive to the hoop more to generate more chances at the foul line. Barnes has mentioned it in the past. He’ll likely mention it again if it doesn’t change. Tennessee was better in shot selection otherwise, hitting 10 of 22 three-point attempts and notching a 46% clip from the field. But the Vols were only at 41% after halftime and Mississippi State’s 30-13 advantage in free throw attempts allowed the Bulldogs to hang around as their offense struggled in the first half and then to pull away once they took the lead.
D.J. Stewart got going in the second half for Mississippi state, hitting four three-pointers and finishing with 20 points. Once the Bulldogs had a threat on the perimeter, the offensive opened up for Reggie Perry in the paint. The only player in the conference averaging a double-double burned Tennessee for 24 points and 12 boards. All while drawing fouls and continuing to get to the line.
“The second half, they just dominated us inside,” Barnes said. “We didn’t have an answer for it and that’s what’s frustrating. Got to give them credit for it. They did exactly what we told our team at halftime that they would do, because they had not shot the ball well in the first half. We knew they would come out and push it at us, try to get early post-ups, try to get it up on the glass and go rebound it. They did.”
Tennessee turns around and heads to Tuscaloosa on Tuesday night. The Crimson Tide have lost two straight after a 82-78 loss to Arkansas on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 7 o’clock ET. The Sports Animal will have Vol Network coverage of the game beginning at 6:30 on 99.1 FM and 990 AM.
Auburn’s 75-66 win over Kentucky on Saturday provided the first real quality win of the season for Bruce Pearl’s team. After a subpar non-conference schedule, Auburn didn’t have many big wins before losing to Alabama and Florida in back-to-back games. Saturday’s win showed how good the Tigers can be and how good they are at getting to the free throw line. Auburn shot 44 foul shots, forced Kentucky to play a smaller lineup and frustrated Ashton Hagans into six turnovers en route to picking up a much-needed win at home.
As a result of that game, LSU now has a two-game lead on both Auburn and Kentucky after LSU took care of business against Ole Miss on Saturday. LSU is 8-0 in SEC play and has won ten straight.
The top teams in the league all picked up league wins on the road. Florida State took down Virginia Tech, Louisville ran away from NC State and Duke held off an impressive effort from Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The league is weaker this season, but don’t let that take away from the Seminoles, Cardinals and Blue Devils. Louisville has a game and a half lead on the other two at the top of the conference with a win over Duke and a loss to Florida State. The Cardinals and the Seminoles meet in Tallahassee on Feb. 24. The race for the regular season crown should be fun.
Baylor cruised, West Virginia handled its business against Kansas State, Oklahoma kept Oklahoma State winless in league play and Texas beat Iowa State at home.
The big matchup featured Kansas holding off Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse, 78-75. The Red Raiders continued to eke closer and closer over the course of the second half, but couldn’t get over the hump in what would’ve been a monster win on the road. Now the defending national runner-up is 13-8 and running out of quality opportunities to boost its resume.
While the top teams in the ACC all won on the road, the top teams in the Big East all lost at home. No. 8 Villanova lost by 15 to Creighton. No. 10 Seton Hall had a ten-game win streak snapped by Xavier and No. 16 Butler fell to Providence. Go figure.
Meanwhile DePaul and St. John’s can pretty much kiss their at-large chances goodbye. That’s probably been the case for a while, but after both teams had strong non-conference seasons the Blue Demons are off to a 1-8 start in league play while St. John’s is 2-8 after falling to Georgetown on Sunday. This league is bonkers enough that all ten teams are capable of winning the tournament at the end of the season, but that seems to be the only path for these two teams.
Michigan and Ohio State picked up big home wins against Rutgers and Indiana, respectively. The Wolverines benefitted from having Zavier Simpson back from suspension with 9 points and 10 assists. Kaleb Wesson notched a double-double for a Buckeyes team that has become an afterthought in the past month. Both teams are tournament-bound, per ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, as are ten other teams from the league.
The biggest wins from the weekend came for Wisconsin and Iowa. The Badgers had lost three of four before taking down Michigan State on Saturday. The Hawkeyes got another monster game from Luka Garza with 25 points as Iowa defended its home floor against Illinois.
Washington is officially reeling. Once a ranked team, the Huskies have lost nine of 11 games after falling to Arizona State at home. Quade Green being ruled ineligible hasn’t helped, but this is no longer a tournament team.
Oregon State’s tournament hopes took a shot after losing to Cal, 69-67. The Beavers were looking impressive after crushing Arizona a few weeks ago, but have lost five of six and are 3-7 in conference games.
Stanford’s win over Oregon was its biggest of the season as Oscar da Silva had 27 points to go with 15 rebounds. Freshman point guard Tyrell Terry is awfully impressive for the Cardinal and a top-25 NET ranking could have Stanford dancing for the first time since 2014.
Meanwhile Arizona kinda fell off the radar after losing four of five around the turn of the calendar year, but have responded with four wins in its last five games after blowing by Washington State on Saturday. The recent stretch also includes a 21-point drubbing of Colorado. The freshmen trio of Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green may finally be starting to come together.
I was really impressed watching ETSU put away UNC Greensboro on Saturday in a big SoCon matchup. The Buccaneers shot 55% from the field and 56% on three-point attempts. Tray Boyd scored a career-high 30 points while showing off his range and Bo Hodges continues to be a key player for ETSU. Former Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes has a good team in Johnson City. Good enough to warrant a bubble nod from Lundardi on Friday. That could change this week. The Bucs will still have to contend with Furman, which is tied with ETSU atop the SoCon standings. The Paladins beat ETSU once already this year and the rematch on Feb. 19 could decide the regular season champ.
I’ve been high on the WCC for most of the season. Mainly because it’s better than it’s been in recent years. There are three legitimate tournament teams if the current trend continues. Along with perennial powerhouse Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s (33 in NET, 27 in KenPom) and BYU (26 in NET, 19 in KenPom) have good non-conference wins and have played two great games against one another. The most recent ending with a game-winning 3 by BYU’s T.J. Haws in the waning seconds to lift the Cougars over the Gaels.
The better story here is what happened after the game. Haws indicated he and his wife, Lauren, were headed to the hospital for the birth of their son. Tyson Haws was born on Sunday less than 24 hours after his father scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half for a big conference win at home. Cougars’ head coach Mark Pope indicated he was going to start recruiting Tyson immediately. You can’t make this stuff up.