Nichols: ‘Consistently inconsistent’ not enough to describe Rick Barnes’s Tennessee roller-coaster

Kentucky shot lights-out on Saturday. In response, No. 19 Tennessee simply turned the lights off on its way out of Thompson-Boling Arena.

When in doubt, I’ve always stuck with the K.I.S.S. method: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

So when I say that there are no words for the constant collapses that we’ve seen from the Tennessee men’s basketball team this season, I mean it. There is no good way to adequately describe this otherworldly phenomenon.

‘Consistently inconsistent,’ a phrase commonly used at first, just isn’t enough anymore.

Why? Maybe because that phrase doesn’t evoke thoughts of the dark, life-sucking hole that Tennessee slithers into after every single win that we think might mark a turning point.

One minute, the Vols are showing why they could be lethal in March. Tennessee did that on Wednesday, responding to last weekend’s head-scratcher against LSU with 93 points to beat South Carolina by 20. 

In the USC win, the Vols reached the 50-point margin by halftime. Amazingly, Tennessee barely reached the same margin by the final buzzer in Saturday’s loss.

The Vols fell 70-55 against unranked Kentucky (8-13, 7-7), a group that’s easily among the worst John Calipari has ever put on the floor. 

A possible explanation is that Tennessee (18-6, 8-6 SEC) must be injecting itself with a sedative between games, as the Vols are exactly 5-5 in their last 10 outings — all of which have been winnable.

Barnes and Victor Bailey had another reason.

“We didn’t practice well, and it bled into the game,” Bailey said. “Came out lethargic in that first half, and it cost us.”

If we’re sticking with the ‘bleeding’ analogy, then the Vols’ showing was as bad as any murder on Elm Street.

"The fact that we got beat by 15 is surprising,” said Barnes. “Because we were that bad.”

Tennessee started off with a 10-8 lead. A 15-0 Kentucky run put the Vols behind 23-10, but Tennessee used a Bailey three to cut the deficit to 11 with 6:17 left in the first half.

“Those 15 points in the first half, that was probably the difference in allowing them to get comfortable,” Barnes said. “We just didn’t put them back on their heels. I thought Kentucky was very comfortable in the first half, and you have to give them credit for making shots.”

Kentucky responded with a 10-5 run, eventually allowing a Santiago Vescovi layup to put Tennessee at a 45-30 halftime deficit.

Unlike its women’s program last Thursday, UT didn’t change much at the break. UK pushed to a 20-point lead, 58-38, with 12:14 left.

The Vols went on a 6-0 run with less than two minutes remaining. But, by that point, Saturday’s final result had been iced over more than the snowy roads in Texas, Arkansas and west Tennessee.

The game marked Josiah-Jordan James’s second time to sit out with a wrist injury he suffered at LSU. Against the Gamecocks, the versatile sophomore’s sidelining barely registered an impact.

Against the Wildcats, most of James’s teammates could have just joined him on the bench. They certainly didn’t do enough to win.

Jaden Springer, who was battling a sinus issue, registered just four points with a 2-for-11 effort from the floor. Vescovi finished with just two points, connecting on 1 of 5. Olivier Nkamhoua batted 1.000 with a 1-for-1 effort, and Davonte Gaines scored zero.

Perhaps the most disappointing performance came from John Fulkerson, who appeared to return to form Wednesday with 16 points against South Carolina. But he was exactly the opposite on Saturday, chipping in four points on 1-of-7 shooting.

As before, Fulkerson showed his struggles to be more mental than physical. He took a pass under the basket in the first half, and, given Fulky’s go-to move, one would think a turnaround layup would make sense. Instead, the 6-foot-9 senior passed the ball back out, as Tennessee continued to shove the ball around the perimeter.

“You cannot get the ball around the rim and pass it back out,” Barnes said. “More than anything, we need consistency from our older players. I wish I could fix it.”

“This game is so much more mental than people might think,” he added. “We’re not where we want to be mentally.”

The Vols better get there, and fast. Because their production against Kentucky won’t cut it against anyone in the SEC, or any March Madness opponents, for that matter.

On Saturday, Bailey, Yves Pons and Keon Johnson were Tennessee’s only positives, in that order.

Bailey finished with 18 points, 12 in the first half, with three rebounds, two assists and a steal. He shot 5-of-10 from field-goal range, 4-of-8 from three and added four free-throws.

Pons registered 10 points with three blocks, two rebounds and a steal.

Johnson went just 4-of-14 from the floor, 1-for-5 from three. But six free-throws pushed the freshman into double-digits, as he finished with 15 points.

For Kentucky, Davion Mintz and Isaiah Jackson were phenomenal. Mintz was a perfect 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, meaning if Tennessee had contested more of his shots alone, the Vols might have given themselves more of a chance.

Jackson scored one more point than his counterpart, accounting for 16 points on the day. 

In their final outing against Kentucky for this season, the Vols had a chance to clinch their second Wildcat sweep in six seasons under Barnes. A win would have also notched Tennessee’s seventh victory against the Cats in the last 10 games.

Instead, UT disappeared right back into that crevice from which they emerged briefly on Wednesday.

That’s more than disturbing this time of year — it’s a death sentence if continued for even two more weeks.

Again, ‘consistently inconsistent’ isn’t enough to describe what’s happening.

Constantly conflicting? Uniformly unstable? Anyone could spend all day digging through a thesaurus to describe the strange plague that’s overtaken Tennessee.

But that same search for reasoning could make Barnes frustrated enough to ram his head against a wall.

One problem, Barnes mused, isn’t even how this team handles defeat. It’s how the Vols handle success.

“I don’t think they’re handling success well, when they get going,” Barnes said. “That goes back to leadership in the framework of what we’re trying to do, and some of that we’ve talked about has to come from the players.”

That leadership also has to come from Tennessee’s head coach, though.

Barnes has said repeatedly that the Vols’ upperclassmen need to look in the mirror to fix their mistakes. But at what point does he take his own advice?

Through his team’s successes and failures, Barnes has never been one to mince words. Rarely, though, does he aim those words at himself.

That isn’t necessarily a knock, at least not yet. It’s just something to keep in mind as Tennessee continues its inconsistent wobble toward the finish line.

The worst part of that inconsistency, especially from UT’s seniors, isn’t even the up-and-down results. It’s that the players know how inconsistent they are, yet no one can pinpoint exactly how to fix it.

Some would say it’s because this team doesn’t have an “alpha,” like Admiral Schofield. But there are plenty of other options, too.

“I think it’s immaturity, at times,” Barnes said. “We’ve still got some young players that are learning what college basketball is all about. When they aren’t (good), you’ve got to have other players. You’ve got to manufacture other ways to score, and we didn’t.”

“Once we start winning, we get lackadaisical,” Johnson added. “Maybe it’s March, maybe it’s April. We’ve got to keep it going consistently.”

The problem is, Tennessee doesn’t have time to keep digging for an answer. The Vols have to find it — now. 

If not, this team won’t last into March, let alone April.

These players know how good they can be. Barnes knows it more than anyone, and the fans have certainly gotten plenty of glimpses.

“We’ve just got to click,” Bailey said Saturday. “Once we do, we’ll be a problem.”

That’s great, in theory. But Bailey said the exact same thing after the South Carolina win, and he uttered those words with a lot less gusto on Saturday.

At some point, words just aren’t enough. That was the case at the beginning of this column, and it will be the case for Tennessee until the Vols can prove otherwise.