Vols vs Texas A&M
John Fulkerson, #10, reaches to try and keep the ball in bounds during the game against Texas A&M on Tuesday, January 28, 2020 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Tennessee’s basketball team faced a challenging week as the Vols picked up a road upset win at Alabama before dropping one at home to rival Kentucky.

Let’s see how the Vols graded out.

Backcourt

Tennessee’s starting backcourt was down a man this week as Josiah-Jordan James missed his third straight game with a groin injury.

With James out, Santiago Vescovi had the full pressure of running the Vols offense against two of the league’s most athletic teams. Vescovi’s shot struggled mightily at Alabama scoring 8 points on 2 of 15 shooting. However, Vescovi did a lot of other things right in Tennessee’s road win.

Vescovi grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists to just one turnover in 38 minutes of action. Vescovi also recorded three steals.

The Uruguyuan native would find his shot against Kentucky throwing in four second half triples on his way to scoring a game high 18 points. Matched up with Ashton Hagans, perhaps the SEC’s best on ball defender, Vescovi handled himself well recording two assists and three turnovers.

Similar to Vescovi, Jordan Bowden’s shot struggled against Alabama, but the Knoxville native knocked down 10 of 11 free throws on his way to scoring 20 points. Bowden also added eight rebounds and six steals in the win.

Bowdens 3-point shot struggled against Kentucky, but Bowden did just about everything else right on his way to scoring 16 points while adding nine rebounds and two assists.

After struggling mightily with turnovers for most of the season, credit the job Tennessee’s backcourt did while undermanned last week. Tennessee recorded fewer turnovers in both of their games this week as the two combined for eight turnovers in two games with both playing 38 minutes or more in both games.

Grades: B

Frontcourt

With James out for the week, Rick Barnes decided to start three forwards, adding Uroš Plavšić to the starting lineup beside John Fulkerson and Yves Pons.

Plavšić continues to struggle finding his footing since being ruled eligible by the NCAA last month. That continued last week when Plavšić combined for five points, four rebounds and seven fouls in a combined 20 minutes of work.

John Fulkerson was Tennessee’s most productive player on the week. Fulkerson led Tennessee last first half, early second half push against Alabama on his way to recording 22 points, three rebound and three blocks in the upset win.

Fulkerson followed his strong showing in Tuscaloosa up with a solid performance against Kentucky. The east Tennessee native scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the loss.

Yves Pons had a complete and dominant performance against Alabama, scoring 14 points, but using his defense and rebounding to spark the Vols. Pons grabbed 14 rebounds, eight offensive, and blocked three Alabama shots including a game tying shot attempt in the games’ final moment.

After blocking the shot, Pons grabbed the rebound and calmly knocked down two free throws to ice the game on the other end.

Pons turned in a solid outing against Kentucky, scoring nine points while blocking four shots. After grabbing 14 rebounds against the Crimson Tide, Pons struggled with Kentucky’s size on the glass recording just one rebound.

Grades: B+

Offense

Scoring 69 and 64 points wouldn’t usually strike one as a great offensive week, but for Tennessee it was two solid performances.

Tennessee shot poorly against Alabama, 35% from the field and just 2 of 18 from three, but the Vols found a way to get to the free throw line. The Vols shot 32 free throws at Alabama and while they didn’t shoot their best at the charity stripe, the 23 points there were vital.

Tennessee’s offense was much of the same against Kentucky where the Vols went 19 of 24 at the free throw line.

Like the Alabama game, Tennessee shot 35% from the field and 27% from beyond the arc against Kentucky.

As previously mentioned, Tennessee’s ability to take care of the ball played huge dividends on the week. The Vols turned it over 14 times against Alabama and just eight against Kentucky. Winning the turnover battle in both games is what propelled the Big Orange to a win over Alabama and kept them in it against No. 15 Kentucky.

Grade: B-

Defense

Tennessee recorded 13 steals while turning Alabama over 20 times in the Vols’ win in Tuscaloosa.

Tennessee was able to effectively slow down Alabama’s high-powered, guard heavy offense allowing just five points in transition. The Crimson Tide shot the ball well from 3-point range shooting 41% while hitting 11 triples.

Alabama shot 46% from the field in the loss, but turnovers continually plagued the Tide, allowing Tennessee to get back in it. Credit Tennessee on-ball defense for playing well in the second half. Alabama killed Tennessee with dribble penetration in the first half, but the Vols tightened up in the second half, helping hold John Petty to eight points.

Tennessee’s on-ball defense struggled mightily against Kentucky. The Wildcats trio of talented guards, Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, torched the Vols going for a combined 43 points.

After cutting its deficit to four points with 10 minutes left, Tennessee couldn’t get a stop down the stretch. Kentucky scored on its nest eight possessions and had just one empty possession the rest of the game helping secure the win.

The Wildcats shot 55% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc while also attacking the glass, scoring 22 points at the free throw line.

Grade: C

Bench

Tennessee’s fruitless pursuits to get production from its bench mostly continued on the week as the Vols’ bench combined for just five.

Jalen Johnson continues to submit himself as Tennessee’s sixth man playing 16 minutes against Alabama and 28 minutes against Kentucky where he knocked down a triple.

Davonte Gaines didn’t stuff the stat sheet against Alabama and didn’t score or record an assist while grabbing a rebound, but the Vols’ freshman made a difference on the defensive end against the Crimson Tide.

Gaines would record a steal while impressing on the defensive end.

Olivier Nkamhoua saw his minutes drawn back on the week playing just two minutes against Alabama and didn’t see the floor until the second half against Kentucky. Nkamhoua recorded two rebounds on the week.

Grade: D

Coaching

Tennessee fell short in both its matchups this week, but the Vols picked up a huge win at Alabama, keeping the Vols’ losing streak from snowballing to four. Credit Rick Barnes for having his team ready to play in both games.

The Vols are slowly getting better as the continually changing Tennessee roster starts to come together.

Barnes did a great job of making his guards give Fulkerson and Pons touches inside. Right now Tennessee’s offense is best playing inside out and Barnes has drilled that into his team as the Vols’ slowly improve on the offensive end.

The decision to start Plavšić over Gaines or Johnson was a puzzling one, especially against Alabama. Plavšić looked lost against Alabama’s speed and he couldn’t use his size on the offensive end to take advantage of mismatches.

Plavšić starting also means Pons has to slide to the three-spot. It’s a spot Pons is capable of playing, but he’s far more productive playing inside at power forward.

Grade: B+

Overall

Tennessee picked up a win, which it desperately needed, in a pair of games that saw Tennessee as underdogs.

Tennessee also showed some flashes of how it can be effective on offense on the week turning in good stretches in both games.

The Vols desperately needed a win over Kentucky for its NCAA Tournament chances as they don’t have a marquee win or a single quadrant one win. Kentucky at home was likely Tennessee’s best chance for a signature win and without it, the Vols’ NCAA Tournament chances continue to dwindle.

Grade: B

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