It was a strange week for Tennessee basketball. The Vols were originally scheduled to play the South Carolina Gamecocks earlier in the week, but COVID issues with the Gamecocks and the Missouri Tigers saw the SEC shuffle schedules to have the Vols playing Vanderbilt twice in one week. Then, the contest scheduled for Tuesday in Nashville had to be postponed due to COVID issues within the Commodore program. Still, after a difficult week schedule wise, the Vols and the Commodores met for the 200th time tonight in Thompson Boling Arena. The tenth ranked Vols looked to extend their winning streak over in-state rival Vanderbilt to seven, and did so by a score of 81-61. Rick Barnes leaned on senior John Fulkerson as the Vols notched a victory against the much-improved Commodores of Jerry Stackhouse.
The name of the game for Tennessee coming into this game was to contain one of the best players in the SEC, Vanderbilt sophomore point guard Scottie Pippen Jr. An All-SEC Freshman selection last season, Pippen entered Saturday’s game averaging 21.6 points per game, 6 assists, and 3 rebounds. Tennessee, after struggling to contain dangerous guards for Alabama and Arkansas, put together a defensive strategy built around taking Pippen away from the Commodores. The Vols trapped, pressured, pressed, and doubled Pippen most of the game. He saw mixtures of zone and man, multiple defenders, and help defense from the post centered on him. Tennessee clearly respected Pippen. Rick Barnes knew he was the best player on the Vanderbilt roster, and he put together a defense that was designed to neutralize him as a scorer as well as limiting as a facilitator. Having the luxury of being able to rotate outstanding defenders such as Keon Johnson, Yves Pons, Jaden Springer, and Josiah Jordan-James onto Pippen was also an advantage. Barnes wanted to force the Commodores to beat his Vols without Pippen as their leading weapon. Pippen finished with 18 points, a lone assist, and fouled out of the game. The determination to contain Pippen meant there were opportunities for other Vanderbilt players, particularly some of their shooters on the edge. Sophomore forward Dylan Disu made the most of his opportunities and led the Commodores with 19 points. Still, the Vols are now 11 games into the season without allowing a 20-point scorer, and the Vols left with the 719th victory for Rick Barnes as a head coach, moving him into a tie for 20th on the All-Time Coaching Wins list.
That the Tennessee defense was stingy comes as no surprise. The Vols held another potent offense well below their season average, but the defense thrived against the Commodores by attacking the passing lanes. The Vols forced 16 Vanderbilt turnovers and came up with 9 steals as a team, while only turning the ball over 9 times themselves. The Vols constantly pressured Vanderbilt whether they were looking to shoot or pass. Tennessee never made anything feel easy or routine for the Commodores, and that kept Vanderbilt from ever settling into a groove. The Vols started on a 7-0 run before Vanderbilt, making a lot of free throws, got back in it and eventually took the lead. The Vols seemed to be in a bit of a funk until an absolutely thunderous dunk from Yves Pons seemed to jar the offense out of a rut. The Vols regained the lead for good off another rafter-rattling dunk by Josiah Jordan-James on an and-one opportunity that he converted.
Offensively for the Vols it was John Fulkerson that set the tone for Tennessee and kept the Vols on schedule. Fulkerson ended the game with 15 points and 8 rebounds. Vanderbilt simply didn’t have an answer for the Tennessee senior in the post, and though the Vols led by double digits at the half and pulled further away in the second, it felt as though Tennessee could have gone to Fulkerson more. Fulkerson didn’t get the amount of touches offensively in the second half that he had in the first, as the Vols were more content to let loose from three. While Tennessee made it work out, it still felt as if the Vols didn’t feed the ball in to Fulkerson and exploit a mismatch to their advantage as much as they could. As for Fulkerson’s running mate in the post, Yves Pons only put up 5 points, but they were points that came in a huge moment for Tennessee and jump started the offense. Pons also corralled 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and added his customary block to go along with his outstanding defense.
Though Fulkerson had a strong night, he did not lead Tennessee in scoring. That honor belonged to freshman Keon Johnson. Johnson put in a career high 16 points to go with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. This impressive night was also when Johnson was the primary defender most of the night on Scottie Pippen Jr. That means the freshman turned in his best performance to date offensively on a night where he was also working hard on defense. Johnson seems to be coming into his own, and the freshman looks more comfortable and impressive with each game.
That can also be said of Tennessee’s other star freshman, Jaden Springer. Springer has looked more and more comfortable on the floor, and while he has always been a clear threat on offense, he has really stepped up his defensive game. It would also appear that Rick Barnes has seen his trust grow in Springer as well, as Barnes has allowed the freshman significant minutes running the point. Against Vanderbilt, Springer turned in 10 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. It is hard to ask for much more from a young guard, especially on a night where, like Johnson, he was asked to defend Pippen for substantial stretches. The Tennessee offense runs smoothly with Springer at the point, and another effective point guard option was a critical development for Barnes.
The Commodores had tightened the Tennessee lead down to four in the second half, before the Vols launched a barrage of three pointers to stretch the lead and put the game away. Victor Bailey Jr. hit three attempts from beyond the arc in as many trips down the floor, scoring 9 of his 11 points in the flurry that opened things back up for the Vols. Tennessee’s starting guards also had solid nights, with 9 points from Josiah Jordan-James and an 8 point, 4 rebound, and 3 assist night from Santiago Vescovi. The balanced attack from the Tennessee offense, particularly from their active, unselfish, and quick-passing back court, helped carry the Vols to another impressive win.
The Vols led by ten at the half, and finished things off ahead of the Commodores by twenty. They extended their win streak over an in-state rival, moved to 4-1 in SEC play, defended home court, weathered an unusual week in terms of scheduling, and got Rick Barnes in the history books. The defense was good, the offense was balanced, and the Vols looked every bit a top ten team in the nation. There isn’t much more that can be hoped for than that. The Vols will try to carry that momentum as they go on the road Tuesday, January 19th to face the Florida Gators. Tipoff from Gainesville will be at 7:00 eastern time, and the contest will be broadcast on ESPN.