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If Tennessee fans were worried about a trap game in Columbia on Tuesday night, those worries were put to bed in the first half. After a loss to Arkansas this past weekend, the Vols bounced back in a big way, beating the Tigers 80-61.
The player of the game could’ve easily gone to Kennedy Chandler, who finished with 23 points. But in terms of the Vols’ overall game plan heading forward, it was Victor Bailey Jr. who brought the much needed juice on Tuesday night. Bailey, one of the leaders of this team, had been in a bit of a shooting slump over the last few months, but finally broke out of his shell in Columbia. He finished the game with 11 points, giving him his second double-digit scoring outing of the season.
This squad really needed that play from Bailey, especially since they’ve been relying on Zakai Zeigler to be the spark. The Vols needed someone else to pad the stat sheets and be another weapon they could count on, most importantly down the stretch. The way Tennessee is currently mixing up the bench rotation with Olivier Nkamhoua out for the season, Bailey could give them another option, if he can capitalize off this performance.
Chandler was excited to see Bailey have this type of night: “VJ (Bailey) gave us great energy on the court. We’ve been telling him to take some shots.”
Head coach Rick Barnes says that Bailey has continued to work on his game and to be a leader for the younger players in the locker room.
“I think when you work and I think he’s done it in practice, just simplified. I think some of it is getting back to what he’s good at. He’s a really good mid-range player and around the rim. When he keeps his game compact and tight, I thought the three he shot tonight was in the rhythm you want him to shoot it with. He shot the way he practices.
“I’ve said before, I think that anybody close to our program would tell you the players have so much respect for him and how hard he has continued to work,” Barnes added. “Just a great example of for everybody that you just never let go of that rope, not only hold on, but keep climbing. Again, he earned it, he stayed with it and he deserves good things happening.”
The challenge coming up for the Vols will be how to guard the Auburn Tigers, who have so many different weapons. Getting production from some of the other guards will be key in this matchup. It will be interesting to see how Barnes and his staff scheme to keep K.D. Johnson, Wendell Green and others in front of them, not watching them scoot by to the basket. They also want to make Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith uncomfortable. We saw a little of this when the Vols beat Kentucky and held Oscar Tshiebwe to only 13 points, even though he had 15 rebounds.
Can Tennessee force Auburn to take some bad shots with the defense of Zeigler and Chandler? How do the Vols cause enough chaos inside the paint with players like Uros Plavsic, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Jonas Aidoo? The second question could be answered by John Fulkerson, if he can bring his aggressive style of play to the court on Saturday. He played only six minutes against Missouri and spent most of the night on the bench with a heating pad wrapped around his back. If this team has a shot at taming the scoring output of Kessler and Smith, then Fulkerson will need to bring his physicality to the paint if he can.
Barnes said after the game that Fulkerson was still dealing with a “hip pointer” he suffered against Arkansas. Fulkerson told the staff he didn’t feel like he could go anymore on Tuesday, which the staff was fine with. They want Fulkerson to be as healthy as possible for the matchup against Auburn, where he will be needed.
On Tuesday night, the Vols went to Columbia for their second road trip in four days and took care of business, leaving little wiggle room for Missouri to cause any problems. This is step one of a four step process to end the SEC regular season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Tennessee could still be playing for a conference title, though they will need some help along the way. The Vols will play Auburn, then follow it up with Georgia and finish the regular season with a rematch against Arkansas.
It looks as though the Vols have a double-bye in the SEC Tournament wrapped up, barring an unforeseen collapse down the stretch. But Saturday presents an opportunity for this team to pick up another quality win, which will help them come NCAA Tournament time.
Get ready. Bruce Pearl and the No. 3 Auburn Tigers are headed to town, and a hostile environment in Knoxville awaits them. This is exactly the type of game college basketball fans get excited about.
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This will be a great matchup. Fans still love Bruce in Knoxville. I expect Pearl will have his team as ready as they “can” be for what they’re about to walk into in Knoxville, as he saw it get to great teams firsthand for years. UT is going to have to continue to play their game: physical defense, force turnovers, and hit open shots. UT gets into trouble when they make careless turnovers and go cold from 3. Auburn must shoot well and not let UT go on a run early to get that crowd going.