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Knoxville – It started out as a joke for the Tennessee basketball team, but after seven straight SEC wins, the Vols continue “Pushin’ P” in the conference. To be very honest, I had no idea what this meant at first and neither did head coach Rick Barnes, until his players started to fill him in after each win.
According to different websites, the slogan means “keeping it real or 100,” meaning the Vols have continued to play their game, no matter the obstacles in their way. The leaders on this team have not let the injury to Olivier Nkamhoua get them down. They’ve just had to reset the on-court thinking. Santiago Vescovi, Kennedy Chandler continue to lead the Vols from the point position, and Zakai Zeigler continues to be a spark off the bench. He has scored double-digit points in six straight games, forcing opposing teams to keep a watchful eye on him.
But those three guards aren’t the only players stepping up their games during this stretch.
Ever since the loss at Texas, Josiah-Jordan James has taken his game to another level. James has scored 10 points or more in his last five games, including a double-double against Vanderbilt. He’s become a leader on the court, and he attributed that to better consistency and holding himself accountable.
“I would say just being more consistent in what I do, and what I say, and holding others accountable. You can’t hold other people accountable if you are making the same mistakes that they are. I think I have grown more with my consistency day in and day out, with holding the highest standard of this team.”
Tennessee has to have James show up on both ends of the court for this team to have success.
But if we’re “keepin’ it real,” the Vols face a mighty challenge on Tuesday night when No. 4 Kentucky comes to town, looking for the season sweep. The last time these two teams played, the Wildcats shot over 70% from the field on their way to a 107-79 win at Rupp Arena.
TyTy Washington led Kentucky with 28 points that night, but is likely to miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury suffered against Florida. His absence could have a major impact on the game, but that’s where Oscar Tshiebwe comes in. The Wildcats superstar has been unstoppable, recording 27 points and 19 rebounds this past Saturday. He’s turned into a monster in this league, who should have Player of the Year wrapped up by now.
Tonight, that “Pushin’ P” mentality better click for the Vols. There isn’t a single player on Tennessee’s frontline who can keep up with Tshiebwe individually. But that’s ok, because it will take a group effort for this team to pull off the upset. John Fulkerson needs to bring his aggression, which he’s starting to show flashes of again. This team will need a more consistent night in the paint if they plan on beating Kentucky, which Barnes addressed on Monday.
“Consistency is what we want, even though some nights, the numbers will be a little bit different. What we want more than anything from our bigs is consistent defense, especially our ball-screen coverage. What we are more concerned about is them playing good basketball and taking care of the details for us.”
Zeigler is a perfect example. That young man doesn’t take a play off and keeps being the go-to guy off the bench. According to Barnes, it’s all about his mentality, especially how he approaches defense.
“I think when you have played the game as long as he has and you have worked at it as long as he is, it’s in his DNA. I think he knows at his height to be an effective player at this level then he has got to be a tenacious defender.
“I look at him and what everybody sees in games, we see him do it every day in practice,” Barnes added. “With that said, I think it is really a part of his DNA and who he is.”
While this team goes through slumps on offense, their tenacity on defense never wavers, even if they give up a few quick baskets. So, this “Pushin’ P” slogan is also about keeping their foot pressed on the gas at all times. It seems to be working.
“When I asked about ‘Pushin’ P’ the first time, I said, ‘What is it talking about?’” Barnes said. “Really and truly the person that was more dumbfounded than me was Kellie Harper. When they asked me about it, I said, ‘The P.’ They said, ‘No it’s Pushin’ P.’ I got six different answers on it and finally somebody said it is keeping pressure and keep playing. I think that was Zakai. I don’t even think Tom (Satkowiak, Vols SID) knew what it was. I guess keep Pushin’ P.”
Whatever the case may be with this slogan that the team has embraced, they better bring it tonight against Kentucky. John Calipari doesn’t care who’s pushing what. All he cares about is getting the win at Tennessee and his players rising to the occasion on the national stage, especially if TyTy Washington can’t go.
But Barnes and this Tennessee team are battling with the Wildcats for a double-bye in the SEC Tournament. I wouldn’t expect much of a starting lineup change since Barnes has been confident in his rotation, but he isn’t afraid to change it up. No matter the size of the opponent, Barnes isn’t afraid to roll a three-guard lineup on the court. It depends on who’s playing with intensity on both ends of the court.
In terms of leadership, the Vols are a much different team now, compared to the first meeting in Lexington, and Barnes has enjoyed watching them grow together.
“It’s different, we’re a different team in terms of our leadership. It’s been fun watching our guys the past few weeks—watching them talk to each other, coach each other, and accept each other’s coaching has been good for us. We’ve talked about that for a long time, and it’s neat watching that part of our program development.”
We’ve got a colossal matchup tonight in the SEC, so prepare for a crazy environment in Knoxville. As long as Tennessee continues playing this type of defense, anything is possible, but they definitely can’t afford any untimely shooting slumps.
If Tennessee comes out and plays like they are capable of, then this could come down to the wire and the team could have an opportunity to prove they’re real competition come March.
“If you don’t know what Pushin’ P means, that means you ain’t Pushin’ P,” Barnes said.