The in-state battle between Tennessee and Vanderbilt took place in Nashville on Tuesday night, with both teams looking for some type of momentum. The Vols were coming off a bad loss to Kentucky, so the 68-60 win against the Commodores was much needed for a team that’s still looking for offensive stability.
The Vols (12-5, 3-3) have now won nine straight over Vanderbilt and 11 of their last 12 games.
Rick Barnes decided to shake things up a bit with the starting lineup and kept John Fulkerson, who was scoreless against the Wildcats, on the bench to start the game. In Fulkerson’s place, Barnes started Uros Plavsic, who finished the night with 13 points and 6 rebounds. Though this team had a new starting lineup, not much changed in the first 10 minutes of the game besides the continued success of Santiago Vescovi. But Barnes was proud to see this team bounce back and put the previous game behind them.
“We’re not gonna win if we don’t bring some mental toughness. To get beat the way we did on Saturday and bounce back, I am just really proud of this team.”
If there is one person on this roster who has brought the energy on a nightly basis, it would be Vescovi. The point guard, who scored 20 points at Kentucky, has been the one bright spot on the team that has struggled so much over the last few games.
Throughout these last few games, the Vols have had to rely on guys like Zakai Zeigler to pick up the pace, especially when Rick Barnes decides to play with three guards. But Kennedy Chandler summed it up best when talking about how this team will do whatever it takes to support each other.
“It’s a got-your-back mentality, that’s how we approach it every day in practice.”
What the Tennessee staff didn’t see coming was the struggles of John Fulkerson. His 2 points and 6 rebounds on Tuesday night don’t give this coaching staff confidence in the sixth-year senior. So, Rick Barnes has had to piece together a front line with guys like Uros and Olivier Nkamhoua who can give them some kind of success in the paint. Barnes was ecstatic to see Uros step up his game and buy into what the staff needs from him.
“The guys love him. He’s as authentic and as real … he’s had some tough times where he wanted to play more,” Barnes said. “He has strictly bought into the role that we want him to play.”
Uros has said multiple times that he wants to be the guy on the court who can do the dirty work, which he did on numerous occasions against Vanderbilt. But for a guy who has basically been a great teammate and cheerleader over the last few years, he hasn’t let any kind of success on the court get to his head. It’s all about the team for Uros.
“If you can’t be happy for the success of others, you’ll never be successful yourself. You just have to keep working and stay positive and wait for your time.
“This entire game was a team effort,” Uros added. “We just wanted to make sure we all played hard. Big game for us against an instate rival.”
But the Vols are still a massive work in progress. They lack an identity on offense, and I don’t care how good your defense is, if you’re taking bad shots and not executing the game plan, you won’t win many big games. The Vols struggle to find ways to score whenever the three-point shot isn’t falling, which was the case again on Tuesday. They finished 5-23 from beyond the arc. The sloppy passes don’t help either, especially from a talented point guard like Kennedy Chandler, who was not in the game for the final minute. At one point late in the second half, Barnes pulled Chandler aside and told him, “You can’t keep up the bad passes,” as the Vols called a timeout.
I can promise you Rick Barnes and his staff didn’t think this roster would have trouble finding consistency on offense, but right now, it’s the hand they’ve been dealt. So, finding ways to get the ball in the basket will continue to be a problem until someone besides Vescovi or even Josiah-Jordan James, who didn’t play in the second half, can contribute on a nightly basis. This team can’t have Zakai Zeigler score all of his 11 points from the free throw line or have Victor Bailey Jr. go cold again.
But the way this team plays on the opposite end of the court gives them confidence that they will have time to work through these hiccups on offense. This staff loves the defensive effort of the group, especially from Zeigler, who is relentless in his efforts. Rick Barnes acknowledged that this team wouldn’t be in this spot without Zeigler.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him. Our players feed off him and they know he’s going to give it everything he’s got. He’s mentally tough, he’s physically tough.”
The Vols are still trying to piece this offense together and figure out a way to capitalize on the playmakers on this roster, whether that be from outside the perimeter, in the paint or driving the basket. But if they can continue putting up a good defensive performance, maybe it can buy them enough time to figure out what to do about the offense. In the SEC, you don’t get a game off. Each game is a test. So, with LSU coming to town this weekend, the Vols better come up with a plan on how to attack the Tigers if the paint is dry.
But with this team, you can always expect the unexpected. In a weird way, that’s what makes this squad so puzzling. Like making Uros a key factor against Vanderbilt, this team is willing to do anything it can to grab a win, and they will need to do that again against the Tigers on Saturday.
A hostile crowd awaits LSU coach Will Wade in Knoxville, with payback on their minds.