Roundtable: Can Tennessee make the NCAA Tournament?
Volunteer Country Staff
Welcome to Volunteer Country’s debut doubtable discussion, where our team of writers will break down five key questions surrounding Tennessee Athletics that week.
This week focuses on Tennessee men’s basketball and the latest surrounding it’s up-and-down season
1. Will Santiago Vescovi’s recent success be sustainable long-term?
Cory Sanning (@CorySanning): Vescovi’s game is predicated on his ability to shoot, that’s a skill that is hard to lose in any player. Using a set shot that is wildly effective, the freshman guard has found ways to translate that into success while putting the ball on the floor, whether that’s scoring in the paint or finding open teammates. Not to mention, he’s cutting down on his turnovers as well, so there’s no reason to think that he can’t keep this up.
Jacob Boughter (@jacob_boughter): Yes. Vescovi is an awesome passer and the threat of his jump shot means that the defense can’t afford to play off of him or go under screens. That jump shot is doubly important, because it also helps open up driving lanes for Santi and his teammates despite his average speed for a point guard. On the other side of the ball, Vescovi can rack up steals, but I would love to see a little more from his on-ball defense. Santi is a future star for the Vols, which is crazy to say about someone who’s only been on campus for six weeks.
Quinton Douglas (@_QuintonDouglas): Absolutely. Vescovi was thrown into a tough situation. Now that he is getting adjusted, the game is beginning to come to him. He isn’t your typical Rick Barnes point guard that attacks you with speed, but his shooting is where he beats you. He’s already hit a three-pointer in all 12 of his games as a Vol, and he’s doing so at a 38 percent clip while knocking down two a game.
2. Are Jordan Bowden’s struggles just a mental thing at this point?
Sanning: No question, they are completely a byproduct of overthinking. Bowden is one of the most fluent shooters in the conference from both distance and inside the arc. His explosive athleticism allows him to finish at the rim with authority and rise up over defenders with ease. He’s got the ability to make any shot on the floor, and I have no doubt that eventually, he’ll get back to it.
Boughter: I’m going to have to disagree with Cory and say no here. Personally, I think Bowden is just a little overmatched in his current role with the Vols. Bowden can be an elite role player for a team as a 3-and-D guy and plays as hard as anyone you’ll find in the country, but I don’t think you want him to be your offensive hub.
Douglas: After Lamonte Turner went down, I believed it was a tough transition for Bowden not having a playmaking point guard. As a result, he was relied upon to lead the offense, and he began to start forcing a lot of contested jump shots. His shooting percentages have suffered significantly and it’s limited the offense in key games. Bowden is no doubt a great player, but for this team, he is having to fill a role that doesn’t suit his game. I don’t question his mentality, because his effort and will is always there.
3. How much of a disappointment has Uros Plavsic been?
Sanning: A big one. Fair or not, Plavsic is a 7-foot, 240-pound mammoth down low that seemingly was going to be Tennessee’s answer for all of its problems down low. Not quite. Plavsic has struggled with his mobility as he continues to adjust to the speed of the game at the collegiate level, resulting in his 13 combined minutes in the past two games. He hasn’t shown the ability to consistently defend the rim or score in the paint, and given his size, that’s a HUGE problem.
Boughter: Yeah… the Uros Plavsic experience hasn’t been too great yet. Luckily for us Vol fans, Plavsic has three more years of eligibility, but this season, the big Serbian hasn’t proven that he should be a major player in Tennessee’s rotation. Until Plavsic proves he can consistently hit that little hook shot he loves so much or effectively stand up to other big men on defense, Olivier Nkamhoua should be ahead of him in the depth chart.
Douglas: I don’t think it’s fair to call Uros Plavsic a disappointment, just yet. Clearly, going into the season, the Vols had a dire need for some size in the middle after the off-season's roster turnover. Plavsic is the roster’s only 7-footer, but he’s also only a redshirt freshman, so I think there may have been some unreal expectations piled on his plate. He’s getting his first taste of college basketball in the SEC. It’s just going to take him time to develop. I’m not ready to give up on him just yet.
4. Should Barnes keep turning to Jalen Johnson to play a key role?
Sanning: Long story short, absolutely. Johnson’s work ethic has been well-documented dating back to last year. He’s always the first one on the floor prior to games and typically one of the last ones to leave it. He provides length on the perimeter and has shown the ability to knock down outside shots consistently. With Turner gone for the year, Johnson provides a nice option when Bowden, Josiah-Jordan James or Vescovi head to the bench.
Boughter: Yes! As basketball evolves, it’s becoming clear that two of the best traits a player can have are outside shooting to space the floor and the ability to defend multiple positions. Villanova, in particular, used this formula with players like Donte Divincenzo and Mikal Bridges to win two national championships. Johnson is perhaps the best three-point shooter on this Tennessee roster, and while he’s not exactly a defensive stopper, he’s come a long way on that side of the ball this season. At the very least, Johnson can space the floor to give Tennessee’s other perimeter players more room to operate. A best-case situation for Johnson could see him evolve into a top-notch 3-and-D guy. Johnson has the potential to be a key glue guy for the Vols, and Barnes should absolutely keep looking his way.
Douglas: I don’t think he’s quite ready for a key role yet. Johnson has shown he has an ability to shoot, and we also know that he is pretty athletic. My on knock on his game is his consistency. Shooting is valued in this game, which is where he’s needed on this team, but in his action this year he just hasn’t been able to do it night in and night out. One bright spot is that he takes care of the basketball and rarely turns it over. Hopefully, he can put it together down the stretch and solidify his role with this team.
5. Will Tennessee make the NCAA Tournament?
Sanning: That’s a difficult question to answer at this point, but I think the Vols will find a way to squeak in. Vescovi is beginning to become quite reliable and Bowden’s confidence will only continue to come back as time moves along. Tennessee has a difficult stretch ahead, but UT will squeeze out enough wins to make the big dance as a low seed. I reserve the right to change that later, however.
Boughter: Maybe? I mean, Florida was a 10 seed last year at 19-15. The good news for Tennessee is that they have a lot of potential Quadrant 1 wins left on their schedule, including games with Auburn and Kentucky. On the other hand, playing a tough schedule doesn’t mean anything if you lose to all the good teams you’ve played. Tennessee could improbably sneak into March Madness even without winning the SEC Tournament, but they’re going to need to play like they did against Arkansas more often if they want to avoid the NIT.
Douglas: This is a tough question. Overall, this team doesn’t really have a statement win to this point in the season. They will get plenty of opportunities down the stretch as they still have matchups on the road at Auburn and Kentucky and Auburn again at home to close the season. I think in order to get in they must win at least two of their three games against those teams. If that happens that must mean that they’re finding their groove and playing some of their best basketball. At this point, I’m more confident in that not happening and they miss out on the big dance.