It's been in a rough week for Vols fans. 9 coaches were fired, players transferred, and the Vols had a 0-2 week in basketball. New athletic director Danny White is mainly focusing on football, but that doesn't mean the basketball team is in a bad place. White hired current Power 6 basketball coaches Nate Oats and Bobby Hurley at Buffalo, while also overseeing UCF's near-upset of Duke in 2019. He has hired Lance Leipold for football at Buffalo, who has been in many conversations for a Power 5 job. He hired Scott Frost at UCF, who transformed the team from winless to self declared national champions in 2018 (UCF beat Auburn who beat Georgia and Alabama, the teams in the national title game). AD is White's family business, as his father Kevin White is Duke's AD, brother Brian is FAU's AD, sister Mariah is SMU's assistant AD, and Mike is the head coach of Florida basketball.
Now back to Tennessee basketball. The Vols fell to Florida 75-49, then lost to Missouri 73-64, causing them to fall from #6 to #18 in the AP Poll. The Vols have a game against a tough Mississippi State team on Tuesday, before hosting the Kansas Jayhawks in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. If the Vols don't do these 3 things listed, they can expect to go 0-2 again and fall out of the rankings.
The Vols are 10-0 with Jaden Springer playing his usual minutes and 0-3 with him not playing his usual minutes (he played 5 minutes against Alabama after leaving the game with an ankle injury). Springer, who re-injured his ankle against Vanderbilt was very missed this week, as the Vols struggled offensively (more on that later). Point guard Santiago Vescovi injured his hip early in the Florida game, and played through it. Vescovi arguably did more to harm than help this week. Highly rated Freshman Corey Walker Jr. has yet to play this season, suffering a broken toe in the preseason and being "too heavy" to play good minutes. The question is now, does Rick Barnes play or sit Vescovi and Springer for Mississippi State? Vescovi is listed as day-to-day, and Springer's timeline is fully up to himself. Should Rick Barnes run the risk of further injury by playing those guys or does he decide to rest them for the showdown with Kansas? Knowing Vescovi, he will try to play no matter what, and its Barnes and the training staff to determine whether he's fit to play or not. If Springer feels like playing, he's playing. We saw him hobbling around the court against Arkansas and Rick Barnes didn't stop him. Walker likely won't see minutes this season. Personally, I would trust the next man up mentality and sit Vescovi and Springer. Bailey would start and Keon Johnson would turn into the primary ball handler. Just know, the Vols will make a run in the tourney once things are settled. Heck, they were dropping triple digits on opponents in December.
Stop Settling for Jumpers
This is only part of the Vols failures on offense. They clearly settle for shots too much. Let's face it, the Vols can't shoot consistently. It took them half of the first half to hit double digits. The scoring comes in bunches for the Vols, and will usually occur when solid defense is being played. Yves Pons led the Vols with 20 points against Missouri. The star shot blocker hit 3 three-pointers. If Pons can shoot like that regularly, given his defense, he will almost certainly be a first-round pick. At 6'6, he seems taller than most other big men, as he is able to get off the ground in a hurry and block shots. He has 99 blocks in less than 2 seasons. There is a reason John Fulkerson was held scoreless in the first half, and other big men Nkamhoua, Pember and Anosike did not score all game despite playing decent minutes. The Vols didn't pound the ball down low like they should have. A 6'9 Fulky dominated 7'3 Riley Vanover against Arkansas and socred 15 points on Omar Payne against Florida. Now he did a great job against Tilmon on defense against Missouri, but for him to become a true factor, we need the guards to start pounding the ball inside.
Rick Barnes told the media he would be changing up the rotation after the loss to Florida. He ended up playing Davonte Gaines, the sophomore defensive hotshot from Buffalo, NY logging in 8 minutes with a block and an assisted block and 2 points. Drew Pember played 2 minutes (this is according to ESPN, but it felt way more than that), logging in an assist. Anosike played less minutes than usual, with 3 minutes, and Nkamhoua played 2. Here are some rotation refinements I think should happen:
Victor Bailey plays less minutes. VJ is a good rotational guard, but shouldn't be playing 32 minutes of the bench. Bailey missed 2 wide open layups, including one that would of been a momentum shifter right before the half. Bailey has struggled shooting the ball, his specialty, and hasn't been the primary ball handler we thought he would be when he transferred from Oregon with the tag "point guard".
Davonte Gaines plays more minutes. He has seen a recent uptick in minutes, which could be nerfed once Springer returns, but his length is a true asset for the Vols, and plays very solid defense. Gaines cannot handle the ball, as shown in 2019 with Rick Barnes' hilarious attempt to start him at point guard in the game after Lamonte Turner suffered a season ending injury and before Santiago Vescovi arrived in Knoxville from Uruguay. He did play a lot of minutes last year, due to the lack of depth in 2019, and that experience should help him in 2021 and beyond as he will likely be relied on to start in a couple of years.
Pons needs to stay out there almost all the time. Pons played 35 minutes against Florida, 3 less than the injured Santiago Vescovi, who played 38. Something doesn't add up. Pons has proven he doesn't get tired often, proven by his 40 minute, no break, full game against Kentucky in 2020, and with Pons on the court, he provides an offensive weapon that can make outrageous athletic plays and one of the best defenders in the nation. Having a Pons on defense is like having a wall blocking a person from entering a tunnel.
3 Other Things that need to be fixed:
Defending the 3 ball (allowed the worst 3 pt shooting team to rain 3s)
Free throws (shot 61.9% from the free throw line against Missouri)
Effort (Barnes was not happy with the effort against Florida)