You never know for sure in the league this year – Ole Miss is currently up 25 on Mississippi State – but we thought this might be a really good match-up for the Vols. And that’s exactly what we got: an Arkansas team with no player over 6’8″ found no advantage on the offensive glass and an inability to defend the Vols without fouling. The fouls actually ended up being a wash – Tennessee went 24-of-30, Arkansas 26-of-36 – and the Hogs’ commitment to three-point defense was fairly well represented too, as the Vols went 6-of-16 to Arkansas’ 5-of-16.
But the Vols found a huge difference in the paint, finishing +11 on the glass and getting high-percentage stuff from Jordan Bowden (5-of-9 from two), Yves Pons (4-of-7), an under-the-weather John Fulkerson (4-of-5) and a nice burst from Olivier Nkamhoua off the bench (2-of-2).
Two other factors were a real difference. The Vols started strong, building a 10-point lead in the first 10 minutes and a 17-point advantage at halftime. Arkansas got a bucket at the 17:47 mark in the second half to keep it at 17. Their next made basket came at 9:07, which cut the Tennessee lead to 25. Mason Jones, an SEC Player of the Year candidate, came off the bench in some apparent message-sending from Eric Mussleman. It didn’t work: the Vols held him to 1-of-10 from the floor, nine points total. He scored 30+ in three of his last four games.
And then there’s Santiago Vescovi. The “wait til he cleans some of his game up” stuff might be happening in the present: 20 points and eight assists tonight, including 3-of-4 from the arc.
The result is a game Tennessee controlled from start to finish, a 21-point win over a bubble squad. It moves Tennessee to 14-10 (6-5); again, the Vols just need wins. Seven games left, and the Vols need to win at least four of them. Vanderbilt is getting friskier by the minute, so maybe nothing will be easy. But opportunity will knock almost every night against this schedule, which goes next to Columbia to face a South Carolina team the Vols beat last time only by getting to the free throw line.
But Vescovi has become the poster child for both Tennessee’s bracket hopes and their argument: when you mix and match so many pieces midseason, sometimes you struggle…but sometimes you get a higher probability of your best basketball late in the year. Combined with the win at Alabama and what’s still a strong performance against Kentucky, the Vols are playing solid basketball right now. They’ll need it to become even more so the rest of the way home. But their point guard has become a real weapon as both scorer and facilitator, the Vols have done this without Josiah James three games in a row, and dominated tonight with Fulkerson at something less than 100%.
There’s a long way to go and an uphill climb to get there. But the Volunteer heart is still beating. And its pulse is getting stronger.