Tremont Waters did not play with an illness. Tennessee held Naz Reid to a single point – one overtime free throw – and 0-for-9 from the floor. The Vols also were even with LSU on the offensive glass at 13 each, though the Tigers only had 11 until back-to-back offensive rebounds led to the tying bucket in the final seconds of overtime. The Vols held LSU to 38.5% from the floor, their fourth-worst performance of the season.
But the Tigers got to the line 31 times, hitting 24 of them. Tennessee went just 12-of-16. It was enough to keep things close throughout, and when the Vols missed opportunities to win at the end of regulation and the end of overtime, one more whistle with 0.6 seconds left as Grant Williams and Ja’vonte Smart collided gave the Tigers two more free throws and the win.
Jordan Bone had bad luck at the end of regulation, slipping and falling on the run in the final seconds. Lamonte Turner took a bad shot with too much time left on the clock at the end of overtime…but, to a degree, if you’re going to live with Lamonte Turner as the Vols did at Rupp Arena last year, sometimes you’re also going to have to die with him.
The refs were the story for their constant use of lengthy video replay to confirm calls that seemed obvious. But the fouls are the real truth of this loss, an all-too-common thread in Tennessee’s defeats:
- Kansas: KU 22-of-34 (64.7%), UT 12-of-17 (70.6%)
- Kentucky: UK 23-of-33 (69.7%), UT 14-of-18 (77.8%)
- LSU: LSU 24-of-31 (77.4%), UT 12-of-16 (75%)
Those three represent the only times this season the Vols sent the opposition to the line 30+ times, but two of them included overtime. The more jarring stat is the difference: Kansas +17 attempts, Kentucky +16, LSU +15.
Tennessee still has the nation’s second-best offense in KenPom after this one. It may very well be that the best way to stop Tennessee’s offense is to get to the line, prevent transition, and get a shorter rotation in foul trouble.
All that said…Tennessee is 24-3 with losses to Top 15 teams, two in overtime. But if you’re looking for a blueprint to give yourself a chance to beat the Vols in March? To me, it’s a convincing one.
Smart had 29 points, but shot only 9-of-22 from the floor. Some of his finishes you have to tip your hat to. The bigger problem was his ability to penetrate at will, which most often got him fouled (9-of-10 at the line) or created better chances for offensive rebounds even when he missed.
Thankfully the Vols have an extra day before going to Oxford, because Grant Williams played 40 minutes, Schofield and Turner 39. Tennessee did not use Jalen Johnson today and put Derrick Walker on the floor for only three minutes. Both teams looked exhausted down the stretch; the Vols had their chances and didn’t take advantage, and LSU did on that last whistle.
It’s tough to judge just how well Tennessee defended LSU without Waters, but overall defense (now 40th in KenPom) continues to need improvement to get to a championship level. But unless the Vols figure out how to defend without fouling against teams with penetrating guards and bigs who can clean it up behind them, they’re going to be in for more of a fight than we bargained for if they catch a bad match-up in the tournament.
Tennessee, Kentucky, and LSU will now be tied at 12-2 atop the league standings. Duke’s loss and Zion Williamson’s injury this week should separate Virginia and Gonzaga atop the bracket. The Vols can still get back to the front of the line in the league and for a one seed by beating Kentucky next Saturday. But first they’ll go to Ole Miss to face another NCAA-bound team.
Nothing is easy from here. Keep getting better.