Tennessee played their first game without fifth year senior point guard Lamonte Turner on Saturday against the Wisconsin Badgers. Turner's senior campaign was concluded when he announced that he was having season ending shoulder surgery after the Vols defeated Jacksonville State. In their first game without their veteran point guard, Tennessee had many of the same issues they have had all season. The Vols fell to the Badgers inside Thompson Boling Arena by a score of 68-48. The Vols were hampered by an inefficient offense, terrible shooting, and defensive struggles, especially from three point range. After getting hammered by 20 by a Badger team that has struggled all season long, the Vols have an enormous amount of questions and very few answers.
Chief among the questions for the Vols is: What has happened to Jordan Bowden? Tennessee's remaining senior guard simply has not produced at the level he was expected to. Bowden and Turner have both been hot and cold shooters throughout their Tennessee careers, but for the majority of this season both have been cold. Bowden has struggled less than Turner, but Bowden has been far too timid this season, settling almost exclusively for jump shots, even when contested. Bowden has tried to be a catch-and-shoot guard when he has shown the ability to be much more than that in his career. Now, when the Vols are relying on him to play a bigger role, he seems to be shying away from it. Tennessee as a team is taking far too many jump shots, many of them contested. They lack a true inside presence and they are not driving the lane to score. Bowden has shown the ability to attack the basket and finish there in the past, and the Vols desperately need him to assert himself in that way now. Tennessee must find higher percentage shots and someone must step up to be the primary scoring option for this team. Everything points to Bowden to fill that role, but if he continues to turn in 2-13 shooting performances and 7 point efforts, there are going to be many more blowout losses like this one to the Badgers.
Tennessee scored only four points in the first ten minutes of the second half. How this team misses so many open shots is baffling. While the Vols are taking far too many contested jump shots, they are getting some good looks as well, they just keep missing them. The Vols must start making some higher percentage shots on offense. For their wing players, this means driving the lane and looking to finish at the rim. Josiah James earned his first start at point guard against the Badgers, and went 1-6 with 4 points and 5 assists. James has the size and athletic ability to drive and finish at the rim, but he has been unselfish with the basketball to a fault. In the second half, James drove the baseline and had a clear path to the basket where he could finish. Instead of dunking or laying the ball in, he dished the ball to a surprised Yves Pons, who missed a contested shot off the pass. James is a pass first point guard, looking to make those around him better. However, with his size and ability, on plays like that, the freshman has to finish himself. He can help his teammates more by being a scoring threat himself and creating opportunities for his teammates as defenses collapse to take him away. As it stands, teams don't worry about James as a scorer because he kicks the ball out of automatic buckets right now. The Volunteer guards must be more assertive and aggressive. They must rise to the occasion rather than shrink from it in order for this team to be successful. They have to learn to create more good looks for themselves and finish at the rim. Tennessee's guards don't need to take more shots, but they have to get more high percentage shots off of drives and cuts to the rim, or else Tennessee is in for more of the same this season.
Freshman Davonte Gaines got his first start against the Badgers, going 2-8 for 6 points as he, like the rest of the team, struggled offensively. Gaines was a player that the Vols had hoped would not have to be a starter this season, and though he hadn't played poorly, the Vols needed more from him as a starter. The long, lean Gaines certainly brings length to the Tennessee lineup, as well as some offensive help, but it was surprising to see the Vols not go with Olivier Nkamhoua as the starter. Tennessee is extremely undersized, especially in the front court. Nkamhoua gives Tennessee a body that is 6’ 8” and thanks to excellent leaping ability, plays taller than that. The added size and ability to work in the post would figure to help the Vols more than another inexperienced guard on the wing. Which freshman starts, which one becomes the sixth man, and which ones can make an impact are questions that the Vols must find answers to for this season and that will define the expectations of next season.
The Vols continue to struggle inside, though their most consistent offense by far again comes from John Fulkerson, who goes 3-3 from the field for 9 points. Yves Pons chipped in five points. The Tennessee bigs went 5-7 from the floor on a night where the starting back court went 5-27. Teams prioritize taking away Pons and Fulkerson because they do make this Volunteer offense far more efficient. The Badgers, a good defensive team, tried to take away the interior game, limiting the looks for Fulkerson and Pons. Tennessee has to find a way to create more good looks for Pons and Fulkerson, and when they have position down on the block, it is imperative that they get the ball. Too many Tennessee possessions end without either big man touching the ball, which results in some of the highly inefficient offense that has been on display. The Vols can create for their bigs if the guards cut and draw defenders, with rotating the offensive set with passes, and creating backdoor cut opportunities, especially for Pons. For their part, Fulkerson and Pons have to demand the ball. They are team first, but as with several players on this team, the unselfishness is beginning to border on timidity. Tennessee is best when Pons and Fulkerson get touches and score. As upperclassmen on this team, they have to get themselves in position on the block, demand the ball, and score on their opportunities.
One of the final questions for the Vols has to be why opponents find magic from three point range against the Vols? Tennessee missed some assignments, but Wisconsin hit multiple well-defended threes against the Vols. Unexplainably hot three point shooting by Volunteer foes is a trend that goes back to the last two seasons. Tennessee will at times defend the three point line as well as you could ask, but the shots just keep going in. This Volunteer unit lives off their defense, and that was clear even when they were making shots. Defense wasn't going to be able to overcome this shooting performance, but the Tennessee defense cannot slip. That side of the ball must create easy opportunities for the offense and keep Tennessee in games. The Vols can ride this defense to a lot of wins, but it has to be excellent. It cannot afford to slip, even a little, while the Vols try to elevate their offense to at least average. Tennessee has to find answers quickly, as the New Year brings the start of SEC play with LSU visiting Thompson Boling next on January 4th.
Image Courtesy of Clarksville Online. Link to Original Image: https://www.clarksvilleonline.com/2019/12/28/wisconsin-rolls-tennessee-vols-basketball-68-48-at-thompson-boling-arena/