Following last year’s season-ending loss to Loyola Chicago in the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team cruised through the offseason amidst the highest expectations it’s ever faced.
National pollsters confirmed those expectations with a preseason No. 6 ranking. The Vols showed why they deserve such a spot in their 87-48 exhibition win over Tusculum on Halloween night.
They showed it for the first half, at least.
Rick Barnes’s team started the night on a high note, as Tennessee embarked on a 19-2 run during the first 20 minutes to lead 42-14 at the break.
But as the second half began, the Vols’ efforts and offense deflated.
Barnes quickly criticized both.
“I didn’t think the second half was any good at all from our perspective,” Barnes said. “In the second half, I just thought we got careless and sloppy with the ball.”
Tennessee also seemed to soften on defense, as the Vols allowed 34 second half points compared to 14 from Tusculum through the first 20 minutes.
“The biggest disappointment is you give up 14 points in the first half then 34 in the second half,” Barnes said. “That’s what we want to see, if we can sustain that. We didn’t do that.”
Moreover, the Vols committed 10 second half turnovers and allowed Tusculum to shoot almost 41 percent from the floor after stifling the Pioneers at 25 percent in the first half.
Once Tennessee’s offense snapped back to focus, the Vols extended their lead to 34 and, eventually, 39 after allowing the Pioneers to duck through the lane to cut the deficit to 25.
But that transition will need to go much smoother in the future, at least if Tennessee wants to avoid what Barnes called “a good first half and just an okay second half.”
In total, Jordan Bowden led the team with 16 points. Grant Williams followed right behind with 15 of his own. But Williams’s point total wasn’t the target of his head coach’s criticism afterward.
Instead, Williams’s poor rebounding piqued his coach’s attention, resulting in comments on Wednesday.
The preseason SEC Player of the Year tallied just three rebounds against Tusculum, something Barnes said has to change for Williams to be successful.
“That’s totally on him. That’s an attitude,” Barnes said. “There’s no way he should have three rebounds in a game like this. Grant is a guy that should be averaging 10 rebounds a game. He has to understand that that’s going to be the statistic that he’s going to be judged by.”
Williams may have been Barnes’s target after Wednesday’s glorified scrimmage, but the Vols still managed to shuffle the deck as far as the roster is concerned.
During Tuesday’s media day, Barnes promised to play a 10-man rotation to start the season.
He didn’t disappoint.
No Vol logged more than 26 minutes of playing time on the night. Tennessee’s 23 second half points off the bench prove just how vital depth proves for this team.
“The fact is I feel very comfortable with this lineup playing 10 guys,” Barnes said. “We didn’t want anybody to really play over 28 minutes, and I don’t think anyone did. With that said, we should be playing at a high level for the whole game. There should not be any let down at all.”
And there wasn’t, at least not when the Vols got rolling. But to get to that point, Tennessee had to overcome its own lack of effort, which Barnes called “immature.”
Derrick Walker did not echo his coach’s comments, but the sophomore reflected on what he thinks will propel the Vols through the season.
“We have to have a killer instinct,” Walker said. “We have to come out in the second half and start to really dominate teams.”
While Tennessee didn’t completely dominate on Wednesday, it certainly left a mark on the Pioneers.
The Vols officially start their season Nov. 6 against Lenoir-Rhyne, and they’ll face Georgia in January to kick off SEC play.
First tip for the home opener is slated for 7 p.m., and the game can be viewed on the SEC Network.
Featured image courtesy of Jake Nichols.
Edited by Chelsea Babin
Sports editor Jake Nichols has been part of the TNJN staff in two different capacities. His freshman and sophomore years, Jake worked as a staff writer before moving on to write for Rocky Top Insider, and he also worked with VFL Films and the SEC Network for a semester his junior year. When asked the summer before his senior year to return to TNJN as the sports editor, Jake jumped at the chance to end his time in Knoxville working with the organization he first began with as a freshman. Jake is excited to help lead younger writers, much like former editors Cody McClure and Jordan Dajani aided him. Jake also does freelance sports coverage and photography for The Mountain Press in Sevierville, Tenn., and in his spare time, he can be found with family, his girlfriend or driving his Jeep, most likely with his Canon in tow. Be sure and follow Jake on Twitter and Instagram at @jnichols_2121, and keep up with TNJN Sports on Twitter as well!