By: Jordan Moore
Senior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call In Show
The 2022-2023 version of the Tennessee basketball Vols had as many ups and downs as the hills of East Tennessee. There were times when this team looked like a bonafide Final Four contender, then other times they looked like a middle-of-the-pack SEC squad. From big-time wins against Kansas, Texas, Alabama, and Duke to head-scratching losses against the likes of Florida, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. Why were there so many up-and-down moments? Why could this team not find consistency on a nightly basis? I hope to answer those questions…
To understand where exactly things went wrong, we have to go back to April 5th, 2022. The day that Kennedy Chandler announced he would forgo his eligibility at UT and enter the NBA Draft. In the 2021–2022 season, Chandler was one of the most dynamic guards not only in the SEC but nationally. It didn’t take long to understand why there was so much hype surrounding his recruitment and arrival on Rocky Top. The playmaking ability that he brought to the roster was undeniable. The two seasons before Chandler's arrival saw the Vols post KenPom offensive efficiency ratings of 96th and 85th, respectively; in the one season with him, their rating jumped to 35th. Take Santiago Vescovi for an example of Chandler’s impact on the Vols: with Kennedy Chandler on the roster, he posted career highs in 2-point percentage (41.3%), 3-point percentage (40.3%), and points per game (13.3). Chandler's ability to beat his defender off the bounce, get to the rim to finish, or find an open teammate for a kick-out three was a thing of beauty. He had an incredible ability to create and get his shot when needed. He put a ton of pressure on the opposing defenses. Not only was he a great offensive weapon but he was also a great defender, his ability to get steals and put pressure on the other team's ball handler created a ton of easy buckets for the Vols in transition. As the season progressed, Barnes found the perfect lineup to finish games with. It involved having three of his best ball handlers and shooters on the floor at the same time (Zakia Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler, and Santiago Vescovi). This allowed the offense to have more spacing and playmaking ability down the stretch in games. In modern basketball, where having dynamic guards and floor spacing is a must, Barnes had found the perfect formula to help his team win games and reach new heights. The 2021-2022 Vols ended up having one of the best seasons in Barnes tenure; they would finish the regular season on a four-game winning streak, winning nine out of their last 10 games and 12 out of their last 14. They would go on to win three more games in the SECT and bring home the tournament title for the first time since 1979. The Vols would enter the NCAA Tournament with a record of 26-7 and earn a 3 seed, but they would ultimately end up losing in the round of 32 to a talented Michigan team that had underachieved in the regular season but was finally able to string two great games together once the NCAA Tournament started. The season may not have ended the way the team or fanbase expected, but Barnes had hit on something offensive that he needed to replicate.
The loss of Kennedy Chandler left a hole that needed to be filled. By the time he announced he would turn pro, there weren’t many options left in the high school ranks, given the caliber of point guard the Vols were losing. Rick Barnes and his staff pivoted quickly to the transfer portal to find a guard that could add that playmaking dynamic that they were losing. The top
The point guard they targeted was Yuri Collins. In the 2021-2022 season, Collins led all NCAA Division I basketball in assists per game while also adding 11.1 points per game and 4.1 rebounds per game on 45% shooting from two and 36.2% shooting from three. Barnes had found the perfect replacement for Kennedy Chandler and the three-guard look-to-end games that had brought him so much success. Only the dream was too good to be true. Rumors of tampering chargers began to swirl, and Barnes chose to back off to prevent any NCAA questioning or investigations that could come from such charges.
What next? Tyrese Hunter was a highly-rated guard in the same class as Kennedy Chandler. Hunter had just finished up his freshman campaign at Iowa State which saw him win Big-12 freshman of the year while leading his team in assists per game, steals per game, and finishing second in points per game. He, like Yuri, seemed to fit perfectly into the type of role Kennedy Chandler played. The staff was able to get him in for a visit and put a ton of time and effort into landing him, but in the end, Hunter decided to stay inside the BIG-12 and play for Texas. The Vols were ultimately able to land a Tennessee native in Tyreke Key, who had just finished up a stellar career at Indiana State. The problem? Key had never played point guard and wasn’t known as a dynamic playmaking guard with exceptional athleticism.
Fast forward to fall camp, and the Vols only had one true point guard on the roster: Zakai Zeigler, a five-foot-nine point guard, straight off of a stellar freshman campaign that had seen him team up with Kennedy Chandler to form one of the best backcourt duos in the country. ZZ, as fans like to call him, had shown that he could be an incredible spark plug off the bench as a sixth man or even a great off-the-ball scorer when teamed up with another great point guard. Barnes experimented with different options at the ball-handling spot during fall practice to team up with Zakai, but no one was able to give them the same type of dynamic they had found the season prior.
As the 2022–2023 season began to play out, you could see that the lack of another ball handler and creator negatively affected the team at times. Opponents began to pressure the ball more without Zakai on the floor, meaning Santiago Vescovi had to play more of a point guard role instead of being able to play off the ball with a playmaking point guard like he had the season prior. Teams began to gameplan for Vescovi, the Vols' best offensive weapon, and on nights those game plans worked the Vols just didn’t have anyone dynamic enough off the bounce to generate any offense for themselves or others on the floor. Starting February 1st the Vols would lose five out of eight games and only score over 70 points on three occasions during that stretch. Things would go from bad on the offensive end to worse when the one true ball handler on the team, Zakia Zeigler, would go down with an ACL tear against Arkansas in the second to last game of the regular season. Without that same play-making dynamic at the guard position, the Vols offense would struggle more times than not during the final few weeks of the season to put the ball in the basket. They had no one on the roster that could go get them a bucket when the shot clock would run down or in the crunch moments of games.
The Vols would enter the NCAAT 23-10, struggling down the stretch, with a 5-7 mark in their last 13 games. Scoring droughts had become a theme. Ultimately the Vols would earn a 4-seed and be paired up against Louisiana in the first round and Duke in the second round. Neither of those teams had enough playmaking ability to knock off the Vols. To the surprise of the majority of the fanbase, after struggling down the stretch of the regular season, Rick Barnes and his squad found themselves in the Sweet Sixteen, one step away from reaching the Elite Eight for only the second time in program history. Their opponent? The 9-seed Florida Atlantic Owls. On the surface, this looked like a great matchup for the Vols. But once you dug into the roster and metrics of FAU you could quickly see how it would end up a matchup nightmare. Dusty May and his squad had entered the NCAAT quietly as one of the best teams in the country, they finished their season with an incredible record of 33-3 after winning the Conference-USA regular season and tournament titles. What made this Owls squad so good? Their ability to spread the floor with their four-guard-one-big lineup terrorized teams. FAU was one of the most efficient offenses in all of college basketball. They had a plethora of guards that could put pressure on defenses with their ball handling, shooting, and creating abilities. They were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country and even though they lacked size their floor spacing and board crashing made them one of the best rebounding teams in the country. This would end up being a horrible matchup for a Vols squad down their starting point guard and a team with very little playmaking ability at the guard spot which also left a lot to be desired when it came to being athletic enough to stay in front of guards. Tennessee had already struggled with this type of team on two occasions during the season, Missouri had beaten the Vols using a similar style earlier in the season in Knoxville and then the SEC Tournament. Ultimately the Vols would go on to lose to FAU because of the Owls' ability to beat the Vol defenders off the dribble in space to create for themselves and others while also being able to stay in front of the UT guards on defense and not allowing them to get easy open looks.
But did the Vols lose the game on that night, or did they lose it back during the summer of 2022 when Rick Barnes knew he needed to add more athleticism and playmaking ability at the guard spot but would end up striking out there in the end? The Vols needed another Kennedy Chandler in the worst way in the 2022-2023 season and especially in the Sweet Sixteen matchup against FAU.
Can Rick Barnes and the coaching staff fill this massive hole on the roster moving forward? If not, I'm afraid we will continue to see the same inconsistency and inability to score points in crunch time moving forward.
Photo above | The Tennessean