The big picture questions of this season revolved around what the Vols could/would do in the paint. Kyle’s gone, Grant’s gone, Admiral’s gone, Uros is ineligible, Pons is playing the four. #20 Washington provided an excellent early test, with three 6’9″ starters, one of them a top five freshman, and plenty of shot blocking.
And Tennessee did the simple things to absolute perfection.
Maybe we’re still a little hesitant to believe the most straightforward answers to those questions could all be real without all that cast from last season. But Tennessee took down Washington’s length by absolutely wearing out its zone defense with the same free throw line jumper it worked so well last season. I thought the Vols needed Williams inside to get those kind of looks. Turns out, at least today, nope: Tennessee shot 47.2% from the floor against what was the #13 defense in KenPom’s efficiency ratings. The Huskies allowed 31.2% from inside the arc in their first two games. Tennessee opened up a 12-point halftime lead behind Jordan Bowden, John Fulkerson, and Yves Pons knocking down open jumper after open jumper.
It’s only three games, but it feels like it’s time to start assuming good things from Yves Pons. Bowden took 13 shots to tie for Tennessee’s lead…with Pons, who hit seven shots and finished with 15 points. He splashed another three, and he can still do this:
What seemed like a stop-gap measure has turned into an actual strength on both ends of the floor. Pons isn’t just the best available option at the four. He could end up one of the best in the league. Once again, Rick Barnes and company are transforming a player with incredible speed and efficiency.
With Plavsic, I wondered who else the Vols would play beyond a seven-man rotation. Without Plavsic, Tennessee plugged in Olivier Nkamhoua – two blocks of his own – and ran a seven-man rotation just fine. Would something like that work in SEC grind? Not sure. But tonight, Tennessee’s seven jumped Washington 14-5 in the first five minutes. Washington got no closer than five the rest of the way, and no closer than seven in the second half.
The Vols are now 7-7 against ranked foes in the last three seasons. In Bruce Pearl’s six-year tenure, Tennessee went 23-21 against ranked foes. You needed to see one to believe it, perhaps, but Barnes and company will have the Vols back in the Top 25, and back chasing the same expectations now, not later.
And they’re doing all of it without any revelation from five-star Josiah James, free to come along nicely with a 4-of-4 performance from the floor tonight and the J.P. Prince Stat Line of the Game: 9 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 3 turnovers, 3 fouls.
The Vols return home to face Alabama State on Wednesday (0-3 and lost to Gonzaga by 31), then host Chattanooga on Monday, November 25. Then it’s off to Destin for the next big test against Florida State and either VCU or Purdue. The way things are going, the Vols might go from scrappy rebuild on the fly to the highest-ranked team in the field.
We’ll worry about that later. For now, this was a big, validating win: old faces, new roles, same result.