Everybody gets to dream big in November, but Villanova didn’t let us get much farther than the first possession yesterday. A 40-minute loss to a Top 5 team will certainly put a dent in your championship aspirations. We had to hope the Vols could figure it out along the way, and play their way back to the kind of ceiling we hoped we had coming into the weekend.
North Carolina is not a Top 5 team, but they were Top 20. And they are North Carolina, legions of fans generally and breaker of Tennessee hearts in December of 2016, 2017, and March of 2000 specifically.
So it turns out no matter how poorly you play against #5 Villanova, you can leave feeling good about yourself if you do something similar to the Tar Heels.
Tennessee was without Josiah Jordan-James. They led by seven after a fast-paced first half, still unable to get the three ball going while Carolina – especially Brady Manek off the bench – had theirs. In the second half, the Vols put a lot of a three point guard lineup on the floor: Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi, and Zakai Zeigler. And it worked. Like real well.
Chandler played 32 minutes, finishing with 14 points, 8 assists, and 2 turnovers. Vescovi played 31, finishing with 17 points, 3 assists, and 9 rebounds in a lineup where he’s basically playing the three. And Zeigler, off the bench, played 27 minutes and dropped 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting, plus 5 assists and z-e-r-o turnovers. The Vols shot five free throws. They scored 89 points.
Carolina’s defense was not Villanova’s, nor will it be the likes we’ll see shortly from Texas Tech and Memphis. But it was still Carolina, and the Vols feasted. John Fulkerson added 13 points, 5 boards, and 6 assists. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield had a nice run of 23 minutes. The Vols never really replaced Josiah’s role with something similar, and Victor Bailey ended up with just eight minutes. Instead, it was a three guard clinic with two bigs; when Josiah’s healthy, there’s some real versatility there in sliding him in at the four if the young kids continue to play this well.
And Vescovi is simply more physical and more consistent, on both ends of the floor, than what we’ve seen previously. He’s never been afraid to shoot (or of much of anything), but he gets in traffic and in passing lanes with much more authority so far this season. If there was any talk of Chandler taking his minutes, his play early on shows how valuable he can be when they’re on the floor together.
The same, apparently, goes for Zeigler. If you didn’t see it and just read the headline – “Zeigler leads Vols past North Carolina” – you might still be unsure who that even is. Tennessee signed seven players in this class, including two five-stars. Zeigler is the sixth-highest rated of the group. He committed to Tennessee the week of the Bowling Green game. The day after the South Alabama game, he torched Carolina’s defense.
There will be ups and downs with any freshman – Kennedy Chandler was 1-of-9 against Villanova – but the good news is not just the diversity, but the defense. The Vols were actually fairly solid defensively against Villanova, but lifeless on offense. Today, they allowed 10-of-23 from the arc against a hot-shooting Tar Heel squad, plus 18-of-22 at the line…and won by 17, holding Carolina to just 72 points. That comes by way of 13 turnovers, and holding UNC to just five offensive rebounds. That’ll travel.
The Vols get Tennessee Tech and Presbyterian around Thanksgiving weekend, then travel themselves to Colorado for the return match on Saturday, December 4. We’ve still got a ways to go to be on Villanova’s level. But there’s no step forward more satisfying than the one they took today.