When last we met in the SEC Tournament, the Vols were in a similar predicament. John Fulkerson didn’t play, knocked out of the Florida game the day before. And a shorthanded squad played hard and well, led by Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. Those two gave 36 minutes; Yves Pons played 39. Tennessee fought but fell, 73-68. But we took it as a good sign headed to the NCAA Tournament.
Against Oregon State in the first round, there was still no John Fulkerson. Yves Pons got in foul trouble, picking up his second with 12:08 left in the first half and the Vols down seven. And before the half was done, the Vols trailed by as many as 19. When missing multiple key pieces, the lineups were unsettled and the Vols had no response for a hot-shooting 12 seed. Uros Plavsic played 10 minutes and scored a single point. Olivier Nkamhoua played six minutes and did not score. E.J. Anosike played more than three minutes for the first time in five weeks. It was a mess, with lineup wheel of fortune one of the most consistent pieces in an inconsistent year, and thus a fitting end.
Last night, Tennessee went without its highest projected draft pick and its veteran hero. Nkamhoua played 33 minutes. Plavsic played 19. The Vols shot just 7-of-29 (24.1%) from the arc.
Yet the Vols were right there all night, ultimately falling to a Bama team that hit three of its seven threes in the last 4:18.
Losses are bad, etc. The SEC should be ultra-competitive, but an extreme scheduling advantage for Auburn has given the Tigers a two-game edge in KenPom projections after one night. We’ll see if or how long covid makes every night an adventure.
But we learned these Vols are not only game for this kind of adventure, but capable. Nkamhoua gave 15 and 9, and hit a clutch three down the stretch. Plavsic had nine rebounds and went 6-of-8 at the line. Zakai Zeigler was just as fearless and effective even without Chandler on the floor at the same time.
There’s a truth about Rick Barnes’ program that continues to work its way through: guys get better, especially when they’ve been in the program for multiple years. Nkamhoua is a legitimate factor on this team every night, regardless of who’s healthy. Santiago Vescovi has become a force on both ends of the floor, getting three of Tennessee’s 10 steals, again, without Chandler. It creates excitement for what guys like Zeigler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, huge in the first half, can be in the future.
But in the present, Tennessee isn’t overly bold or foolish for suggesting they’ll actually play anybody, anywhere, anytime. This bunch went to Tuscaloosa without its two best players and almost won, and would have if they made open threes. It’s a costly loss in the hunt for the SEC title. But for the grand scheme of this season, it’s another good sign.