After a sparkling start to the season in which the Tennessee men’s basketball were 10-1 and was ranked No. 6 in the nation, the Vols went into a tailspin, going 8-8 the last two months of the campaign.
The disappointment ended with a disappointing 70-56 loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament to a team picked to finish last in the Pac-12.
The same concerns that reared their head during the regular season were on display against Oregon State: Lack of point guard play, lack of inside presence, lack of shooting.
A Tennessee team that showed Final Four capabilities to start the year finished 18-9 and unranked.
A caller to SportsTalk WNML suggested the Vols were overrated and didn’t under perform.
When I evaluate a team, I look at its peak performance, then see how many times it came close to playing at that level.
Tennessee was good enough to beat Missouri on the road by 20, to win by double digits at Rupp Arena, to beat top 20 Kansas by 19, to run roughshod over Florida in the second half of the regular season finale, then in the SEC Tournament.
While the highs were high, the lows were disturbingly low. A 75-49 loss at Florida, scoring 50 points in a loss at Ole Miss, losing to Missouri and Kentucky at home after you beat both by double digits on the road, falling to Auburn without its best player, then the offensive debacle against Oregon State in which UT shot 33.3% from the field and made a paltry 5 of 26 on 3s .
Tennessee had a guy that projects to be an NBA lottery pick, a guy that could be a top 25 pick, a guy that was SEC defensive player of the year, a guy that averaged 18.3 points in his last 10 games of last season, a five-star wing who has great versatility, and a guy who debuted as a freshman by splashing six 3s.
Tennessee didn’t lack talent.
It lacked consistency. It lacked chemistry. It lacked a point guard. It lacked an inside scorer. It lacked leadership. And it lacked shooters.
Most teams that have made the Sweet 16 have several offensive threats, several guys that can drain 3-point shots, several guys that can dribble drive to the basket and an inside scorer.
Tennessee will have a roster makeover next year. It needs to find an inside threat (John Fulkerson could help there if he returns and returns to his junior level of play). It needs to find a bruiser inside that’s talker than 6-foot-6. It needs to find shooters.
And it needs a point guard.
My biggest miscalculation of this Tennessee team was the play at point guard. I thought the Vols could do it by committee, led by Victor Bailey Jr. and Jaden Springer and Santiago Vescovi.
Bailey had his moments, but he seemed more concerned about scoring than running the offense. And his defense was surprisingly suspect. When he wasn’t hitting shots, he didn’t help in other ways.
Springer was a reluctant point guard. He seemed more concerned about playing off guard, and then he seemed more concerned about getting his share of the points. And he too often got in trouble by driving into the lane without a plan.
Vescovi was a shaky ball-handler when pressured. And too often, he would jump while penetrating with no where to go, leading to too many turnovers. He also missed his share of open shots from beyond the arc. And he is a liability on defense.
Help is on the way with five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler. He can run the offense, score, pass and lead. He could be just as impactful as a freshman – if not moreso — as Keon Johnson and Springer.
UT likely will hit the transfer portal, trying to find a big man. Walker Kessler, a five-star center who signed with North Carolina, entered the transfer portal after his freshman season.
Other big men can also be found in the portal. UT has to get at least one.
This also had to be a very frustrating season for coach Rick Barnes. He wasn’t able to get his team to play at the consistently high level as his 31-6 squad of two years ago.
Barnes has had a Hall of Fame career; his 727 wins are sixth most among active coaches.
But he has not had great success in the postseason. In 34 years as a head coach, he has made one Final Four, three Elite 8s and seven Sweet 16s.
And in 62 tournaments (NCAA, NIT, CBI, conference) he has won one (Providence, Big East, 1994).
To improve on that mark, Barnes must retool his roster with a point guard (Chandler) a big man and more shooters.
That will better enhance his chances of postseason success.