Far From an Overhaul, These Vols Just Need Some Fine Tuning
Tennessee comes out of a trip to Baton Rouge with a second, heartbreaking loss in overtime against a ranked opponent this season. Also, for the second time this year, the Vols will look at the tape from this game and feel as though they let this one get away. The Vols lead the Tigers by eight with four minutes left to go in the game, but rather than close LSU out and leave the Bayou with a huge road win, the Vols allowed the Tigers to hang around. This has been a troubling trend for Tennessee all season, as they seem to let pesky, tough teams stay within striking distance. Though several teams have come close to making the Vols pay for that this season, the Tigers, who have made a living as a cardiac threat to their fans all season long, made the plays down the stretch to upset the fifth ranked Vols. There were many opportunities for Tennessee to win this game, and despite terrible officiating throughout the game, including an unfathomable call with 0.6 seconds left in overtime to put LSU on the line after a scramble for the ball at the other end, the Vols ultimately failed to capitalize on ample opportunities to win this game.
The Vols are an excellent basketball team, and even with losses in two of their last three, should remain firmly inside the Top Ten when the polls come out on Monday. That said, while the Vols may not stand in need of a complete overhaul, they are in dire need of some fine tuning in order to reach their full potential competing for the SEC and National Titles. After a blowout loss to Kentucky and a lackluster performance against Vanderbilt, the Vols again looked to be stymied against LSU, never really feeling like they got into a groove. Some of that was due to Jordan Bone playing with an illness that obviously impacted his game, some was due to dealing with foul trouble caused by yet another poor officiating crew in SEC play, and some was due to good looks by the Vols just not falling for the third game in a row. Those are all things that are beyond Tennessee’s ability to control, however, there were some factors that contributed to the stumble in Baton Rouge that Tennessee can correct.
Leading up to the Kentucky game, the Vols had some stretches where their offense just looked out of sorts. Going back to the second meeting with Missouri in Thompson Boling Arena, the Vols have not gotten enough touches for Grant Williams, not getting the ball into the post with enough regularity. This is something that Rick Barnes has addressed multiple times with the media over the last six to eight games. In the same vein, after the debacle in Lexington, several Volunteer players as well as Coach Barnes talked about Tennessee playing selfish basketball. Though the players acknowledged it, brought it up even, against LSU that selfish streak showed up again, and it cost the Vols again. Tennessee has seemed to lack toughness, and despite out rebounding LSU, the Vols have struggled on the glass and in the paint during this slump. To be frank, there are very, very few teams in America that should outscore the Vols in the paint, and none that should dominate them there. However, Tennessee has struggled down low in their last several contests, another symptom of the issues at the heart of the Vols’ struggles of late.
The good news is, these issues are all fixable. Rather than malign the loss or second guess what happened in Lexington or Baton Rouge, let’s look ahead to the remainder of Tennessee’s season, and the fine adjustments that they can make to end the season strong. This requires Rick Barnes to do something he has already shown he is willing to do earlier in the season, namely, to tweak his lineup. Something that Vol fans should take comfort in is that Rick Barnes has forgotten more about coaching basketball than most people will learn in a lifetime, myself included. This is not a critique of Barnes’ coaching acumen, merely slight changes that should correct the struggles Tennessee has endured.
First and foremost, the Volunteers have to get production from the Center position. Kyle Alexander is a senior on this team, is well liked, and when he is at his best, is an excellent fit at the five for what Tennessee wants to do. Barnes has stated multiple times over the last two seasons that the Vols are at their best when Alexander is playing well. And, that is absolutely correct. Alexander, when he is on his game, is one of the best rim protectors in college basketball, a great rebounder, and a solid scoring option. Over the last month however, Alexander, in the words of his coach, “Has not been a factor at all.” Going all the way back to the Alabama game, Alexander has only recorded seven or more points or rebounds five times, while he has fouled out three times, twice in less than twelve minutes played. He has only managed double-digit points in that time span once. For a player of Alexander’s talent, experience, and size, this is simply unacceptable. Given how well he has played at times over the last two seasons, it is also completely baffling. Aside from poor fundamentals where rebounds are concerned and a lack of hustle at times, it is difficult to see what the big Canadian is doing differently from earlier in the season. Offensively, playing alongside the perpetually double-teamed Grant Williams, Alexander should see ample opportunities at easy dunks and layups.
That said, what the Vols need most of all from their starting center is rebounding and defense. The scoring is nice, but Tennessee has other options in the starting five that are scoring options, the center needs to defend the rim and crash the glass. To put it another way, the Vols need a Dennis Rodman type at center, someone to snatch rebounds, contest shots, provide energy and toughness, and get some points as an added bonus. Though he doesn’t have the same demeanor as The Worm, Tennessee does have a player on the roster that can provide exactly that in John Fulkerson. Barnes loves Alexander and wants to see him get this righted, and for good reason. Still, it has been a month, and Alexander hasn’t shown signs of getting this funk corrected. This deep into conference play, with March looming, Barnes is going to have to address his center spot. Kyle Alexander is a better all-around basketball player than John Fulkerson right now, but Fulky provides what this team needs from that spot better right now. Fulkerson’s rebounding and defense give the Vols the toughness and production they need in their starting five in the areas they need it most. Allowing Alexander to come off the bench may also spark the fire in him that Barnes has been trying to coax out for a month. At worst, it makes Tennessee better off the bench with Alexander serving as a viable scoring option and minimizing the impact of fouls he may take.
Similarly, the Vols have had Lamonte Turner in the starting lineup since they played the Mountaineers of West Virginia on January 26th. The Junior combo guard replaced Sophomore Yves Pons in the starting lineup. Since that change has been made, Turner has seen the lion’s share of the minutes with Pons seeing a dramatically decreased role due to Turner’s play as well as a facial injury he sustained in practice. Turner is the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year, and exploded in his opportunity to start for Tennessee, lighting up the Mountaineers for a career high 23. Though he has yet to equal that initial performance, Turner has been a solid offensive addition for the Vols in the box score. On the floor however, his insertion into the starting lineup has coincided with some of Tennessee’s offensive struggles. Turner has been a streaky shooter this year, and over the last four games, his shots have not been falling well. When he was coming off of the bench, that was one thing, but as a starter he is taking far more shots. That means when his three-point shot isn’t falling, he is the last man to touch the ball on a lot of empty possessions. That issue is only compounded if some of his running mates, like Jordan Bowden against LSU and Kentucky, struggle to hit from range as well. Tennessee has been starting games with Bone, Turner, and Schofield on the floor together, all willing and able to take a deep three if the opportunity presents itself. Add in Bowden coming off the bench, and the Vols regularly spread the floor with three to four accomplished three-point shooters. Weirdly, this has hindered the Vols on the offensive end of the floor.
Tennessee adding Turner as a starter also saw the touches Grant Williams saw in the low block go down. Outside of Bone, the other guards have seemed more content to take threes early in the clock, rather than drive the lane, penetrate, and create opportunities for late kickouts and high percentage two-point shots. Make no mistake, the Vols are absolutely at their best when they are pounding teams into submission down low, two points at a time. The three-point prowess is built off of that and makes them more lethal, but this team is most effective when Jordan Bone is feeding the big men down low or penetrating himself. Inserting Turner into the starting lineup saw Tennessee lose sight of their identity a bit, as they have tried to be a dangerous three-point shooting team too often, getting away from working the ball inside. Thankfully for Tennessee, the solution to this problem is sitting on the bench right now, improves the starting five, and makes Tennessee’s bench longer late in the season.
As well as Turner has played, he has struggled at times this season on defense. Against LSU, Ja’vonte Smart blew by Turner repeatedly, often with ease, to finish at the rim with easy lay ups. Tennessee had a pair of guards in foul trouble, so Turner couldn’t afford to be as aggressive on defense as he has been at times in his Tennessee career, but he failed to even irritate Smart when he was guarding him. It is simply hard to imagine Smart blowing by Yves Pons with the ease that he had against Turner. Pons adds height and length over Turner, as well as speed. Pons is an excellent defender and a good rebounder. While he lacks Turner’s offensive prowess, he is capable of contributing on the offensive end, and in a way that benefits Tennessee’s starting five and overall identity more at the moment.
Yves Pons didn’t get the nickname of the Flying Frenchman for nothing. He is adept at cutting to the basket and is a strong finisher at the rim. He can drive the ball well, but sometimes struggles to get his own shot. In Tennessee’s starting five, however, that isn’t really an issue as he is the fourth scoring option at best and benefits from Bone’s precision passing. In a starting role, Pons brings Tennessee the defense and rebounding that they have been missing. He also provides an option to Bone, Williams, and Schofield to hit as a cutter for an easy two (see points in the paint above) when a defense rotates too far away from him. His excellent athleticism gives Tennessee an accomplished defender, a good rebounder, and a player that excels at running the floor, something Jordan Bone has missed of late. Bone has tried to get this team to run at times over the last few weeks and has struggled to find someone to tear down the floor with him. Yves Pons is an ideal running mate for Bone if they start a break, and with the way the two of them play defense, it isn’t difficult to see more of those opportunities come up. This alteration to the lineup would also allow Tennessee to roll in Bowden and Turner off the bench, giving the Vols a pair of dangerous offensive weapons that can play long minutes and, especially with Bowden, play multiple assignments. Tennessee’s starter would have three All American caliber scoring threats in Williams, Schofield, and Bone, with Pons having opportunities to get points thanks to scheme and Fulky’s points being a bonus. Off the bench, the Vols could send out a pair of excellent scorers in Bowden and Turner to be a one-two on the court together or add needed three-point efficiency to the offense. Alexander comes off as a great defender and adequate scorer, and potentially rounds back into his early season form.
This Tennessee team is a special one. While they have endured some bumps in the last few weeks, they have the solutions to their problems on the roster right now. It is merely a matter of adjusting minutes, tweaking lineups, and most importantly, getting back to their identity as a team. Altering the starters to reflect a renewed commitment to defense, rebounding, and dominant, efficient, half-court play on offense should be just what it takes to have these Vols running into March like a well oiled machine.