Tennessee basketball has fallen short of the expectations that many had for it going into this year. The Vols currently sit at 15-11 and 7-6 in conference, a far cry from competing for the conference title like last season. However, the remaining five games on the schedule will make it very difficult for Tennessee to finish above .500 in the conference.
The Vols were not expected to replicate the success of last season following the departure of four starters, all of whom find themselves on NBA rosters right now. However, there was hope for another quality season as Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden were expected to step up and help to fill the hole left by their former teammates. Also, Josiah-Jordan James was tabbed as someone who would make a big impact in his freshman season, but events transpired differently.
Times were good on Rocky Top in the early part of the season. Tennessee pulled off an upset against No. 20 Washington, but the tide started to turn after the loss against No. 13 Memphis. The Vols lost the following game against unranked Cincinnati, before beating Jacksonville State. The win was a pyrrhic victory as, following the game, Turner announced that he was medically ending his Tennessee career to undergo surgery in anticipation of a professional career.
Also recently, Bowden has undergone a bit of a slump including two first halves and a period where he went 1-10 from three. At the same time, James, who was a reliable starter in the early part of the season, has missed multiple games and seen his minutes drop. With the turnover at the top of the roster, the Vols have not been able to find consistency, having not won back-to-back games since Jan. 18 and 21.
“If you would have told me when the season started,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, “that Lamonte Turner wasn't going to be here and Jordan Bowden was going to have his worst shooting year ever, and for us to even be where we are? One of those guys is no longer with us, one is having as a tough a year as he has ever had, and the other has basically been hurt from the start. For us to even be where we are after those things, I'm really proud of these guys.”
Despite the struggles of the expected top three, a new crop of players has risen to lead the Vols. Returning from last year’s team are John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, who filled the eighth and seventh-man roles last season. The pair have grown tremendously in the offseason, with Fulkerson and Pons playing like the top two players this spring.
“I think Fulkerson was a focal point for them,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “They were trying to punch it to him and we were allowing him to get too good of a position on us. We talked about that going into the game … I think he’s playing at an all-league level.”
Also, Tennessee has been joined by two new players mid-campaign in Santiago Vescovi and Uros Plavsic. Vescovi has impressed many with his play quality in his first semester in the country. He struggled with turnovers early in January, but has quickly improved that facet of his game. Plavsic, with his seven-foot frame, has provided the Vols with much-needed length and when he matures, he has the potential to be an excellent rebounder.
“We have two guys on the roster who weren't even on our opening day roster,” Barnes said. “And the fact that we had a guy that had three days of practice and has done a tremendous job, Uros sat out much of the year. Right after Christmas, we were a team that looked like a shell of what we were when we started. Without Santiago, I don't know where we would be right now, but to be able to continue to fight back and still be in the thick of it, is a real compliment to these guys …”
Tennessee has five games remaining before they travel to Nashville, Tennessee for the SEC Tournament. In those games, they face current No. 13 Auburn, who sit at second in the conference, both home and away. They have to travel to league-leading Kentucky, whom the Vols lost to on Feb. 8. They also travel to Arkansas, who Tennessee already defeated, but the Razorbacks boast one of the best home-court advantages in the league. The lone possible reprieve will be Feb. 29 when the Vols host a struggling Florida team.
“One, we should look at it as an opportunity right now,” Barnes said, “where we get to play the top half of the league. The opportunity is there, but it’s going to be difficult. We can’t make the mistakes that we’ve made the last two games. We’ve been through a lot with this team, a lot of different scenarios, but now, forget it, because we’ve proved that we can compete with every team, and now it’s about this group of guys. We’re probably as healthy as we’ve been all year long right now.”