It took overtime to settle the Championship game of the NIT Season Tipoff, and when the extra period had ended, the Vols came up short in a heartbreaker to number two Kansas 87-81. The loss stings even more for Tennessee, who has to be thinking they let one slip away as they head home to Knoxville. Tennessee lead in this game by as many as ten points during the second half, only to the see the Jayhawks rally and ultimately force overtime. In the extra period, the Vols were without Grant Williams, who had fouled out late in the second half, and struggled to replace him.
Williams had an impressive effort, as usual, for the Vols on Friday night. He scored well, played good defense, and rebounded the ball well. His presence in the low post impacted what the Jayhawks were able to do on offense all night, and he and Kyle Alexander made easy buckets few and far between for Kansas. Where Williams made his biggest impact, however, was on the offensive side, late in the second half. As the Vols seemed to go a bit stagnant and cold on offense, Tennessee kept finding a way to pound the ball down low to Williams, where he kept making shots and carrying the Volunteer offense. Late in the second half, the Vols struggled to find a second option that could hit to complement Williams, but the reigning SEC Player of the Year kept shouldering the burden to help Tennessee keep pace. The loss of Williams on a questionable at best call, in a game where quite a few of those went against the Vols, was just more that Tennessee could overcome.
After Williams departed the game, Tennessee’s offense just seemed to go cold. What was worse, they struggled down the stretch to get rebounds, with Kansas capitalizing on several second chance opportunities late that made a huge difference. It is far from a guarantee that the Vols would have been able to secure those rebounds even if Williams was in the game, however, everyone in Orange would have felt better about Tennessee’s chances were his size and skill still available to the Vols.
As for Williams’ primary partner in crime, Admiral Schofield, he had a strange night. Admiral played hard, with the same edge and intensity Tennessee fans have grown accustomed to from him, but for the majority of the game his shots just weren’t falling. Inside, outside, and midrange, Schofield had an uncharacteristically difficult night shooting the ball. At least, he did until the overtime period started. Once the bonus period began, Schofield began forcing his way down low and scoring deep in the post against Kansas, and just when the Jayhawks looked to have UT put away, Schofield hit a huge three to keep Tennessee alive. It was ultimately too little too late, but the fans and the team have to wonder what might have been if Admiral had been hitting at that rate even slightly earlier in the game.
Uncharacteristic turnovers hurt Tennessee, especially from their guards, as did inconsistent shooting from that group. As frustrating as those were, thanks to the interior play on offense, and the excellent defense often turned in by that same group of guards, the Vols had significant lead late in this game. The Vols played smothering defense for most of the game, especially in the first half. During the second half of the game, the referees seemed to start calling a much tighter game, with soft to outright head scratching calls coming down, and they went far more often against the team in Orange. As fouls on their interior players began to mount, the Vols were a bit limited in how aggressive they could be on defense. The fouls ultimately caught up to them late, with the change in officiating having as much to do with the outcome of this game as any adjustments Kansas made.
Still, though it stings, this is a valuable lesson for Tennessee at a time when a loss is far from the end of the world. Tennessee took the number two team in country, a perennial blue-blood basketball program, and gave them absolutely all they wanted. Tennessee got on the national stage, and though they came up short, they proved that they belong among the nation’s elite programs. The NCAA Tournament is notorious for changing the way games are called when compared to how games in the regular season are called. These changes and ticky-tack calls often do to physical teams what they did to Tennessee tonight, change their defensive strategy and make them play while in foul trouble. This type of officiating is one of the reasons we see guard play shine so often over big play in the Big Dance.
Tennessee was fortunate to run into a game called that way in November, rather than March, and to do so against a team they are likely to see again late in that month. While this loss stings, it isn’t season ending, and it provides a learning opportunity for this team an a clear opportunity for other players to step up in these types of games as the season goes on.
Tennessee also has plenty of chances on the schedule to get wins against the top opponents in the nation. The Vols still have games out of conference remaining against Gonzaga, West Virginia, and a revival of a rivalry in a trip to Memphis. All this before SEC play begins, where a minimum of two matchups with Kentucky await, as does a contest with a top ten Auburn team. Rick Barnes is not searching for morale victories, and will accept none. The team feels this loss keenly, and the fans are upset at seeing a marquee victory slip through the program’s fingers. Still, the Vols proved they belong, and leave New York with plenty to build on. Barnes will take this tape and push his players to improve, and this is a group with the maturity and leadership to take that challenge to heart.
The Vols return home to play Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday, in an opportunity to get a bitter taste out of their mouths. This Volunteer team has shown that they belong in the top tier, and now know what they have to adjust to and overcome to reach the pinnacle of that top tier. Expect the Vols to push finding a consistent, third scoring option to go to in case Williams or Schofield struggle to get their shot. Also, look for Tennessee to experiment with potential combinations of bigs to supplement time that Williams or Alexander may be on the bench or in foul trouble. Finally, the Vols are likely to continue searching for another scorer capable of getting points without a set play outside Lamonte Turner. Expect to see an expanded role as the season progresses for Yves Pons, as he seems to keep showing flashes of being that missing piece. No loss is a good one, but if this team had to take one, better now than later. Now let’s see if these Vols can utilize their leaders and experience to grow from this setback and close teams out strong.