It’s not so much that this game represented Tennessee’s worst basketball, though that might be true of the performance. It felt more like a team that struggled in the second half of the year with its offensive identity seemed to lose itself completely during this game. No John Fulkerson, and then no Yves Pons with foul trouble. It was already out of hand when Josiah James exited with a nasty looking ankle injury. And the Vols never found the pieces to put it back together.
You can look at the minutes and see the search: Uros Plavsic early, Olivier Nkamhoua for a long stretch with Pons on the bench in the first half, E.J. Anosike in that role in the second half. Tennessee’s interior defense was completely victimized by Roman Silva as a result: Silva’s season high was six made shots in a game, something he did three times. Today he went 8-for-8. And Oregon State’s hot shooting from the Pac-12 Tournament persisted: 10-of-21 from the arc, 47.6%. In Tennessee’s last five NCAA Tournament games, opponents from the arc shot:
- Loyola Chicago: 8-of-20 (40%)
- Colgate: 15-of-29 (51.7%)
- Iowa: 7-of-21 (33.3%)
- Purdue: 15-of-31 (48.4%)
- Oregon State: 10-of-21 (47.6%)
- Total: 55-of-122 (45.1%)
The Vols allowed 31.8% from the arc all season before today, 35.4% in 2019, and 31.8% in 2018.
So one part of this, much the way we tipped our hat to Ryan Cline upon our last exit, is to credit Oregon State. Not only did they stay hot offensively, they scouted Tennessee very well and attacked with excellence where the Vols were most vulnerable without Fulkerson.
And one part of this is certainly Fulkerson’s absence. In this way too, Tennessee has fallen on the wrong side of luck in postseason play under Rick Barnes, with Kyle Alexander’s sudden absence a factor in the loss to Loyola three years ago.
Things felt up in the air without #10, though Tennessee played so well against Alabama without him you felt hopeful it might show up again. Instead, the Vols got so out of sorts so early, they never recovered. Tennessee’s own three-point shooting was poor, but that’s not the first time we’ve run into that problem this year (or recently, see 3-of-21 against Florida in Knoxville). What hurt Tennessee’s offense more was an inability to get to the line: just 12 free throw attempts, the fourth-lowest of the season. Tennessee’s 10 assists were also fourth-lowest on the year, another sign that things simply weren’t working offensively. In the late frenzy the Vols did push Oregon State over the “magic” 14+ turnover mark at 15, but by then it was too late.
There’s a lot you can say about this one, little of it good. We have little experience without Fulkerson, and no experience losing as this kind of favorite in the first round of the tournament, all of which makes conclusions easier to jump to. The loss is certainly disappointing, as is a first round exit from a 10-1 start.
The thing I am most sure of this year remains the pandemic. And so more than anything, I want to go back and say again how grateful I am that this team played basketball in the first place. I don’t know everything they went through, and I’m sure their disappointment outnumbers our own. But I’m so grateful they’ve been there twice a week for four months. And I’m hopeful the 2021-22 Vols will only be answering questions about the virus in the past tense.