Yves Pons-Vols Mississippi State hoops BP

Tennessee guard/forward Yves Pons (35) is greeted by teammates as he heads to the bench after fouling out during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

Tennessee responded from its worst week of the season strong, hanging onto a narrow victory over Mississippi State Tuesday before dominating No. 15 Kansas Saturday to clinch the SEC/Big 12 Challenge for the SEC.

Freshman guard Jaden Springer returned from injury giving Tennessee a spark while the Vols’ frontcourt showed more of the play that was expected entering the season.

Here’s how the Vols graded out.

Backcourt

Tennessee started two different lineups this week with Jaden Springer coming off the bench in the 56-53 win over Mississippi State before replacing Josiah Jordan James in the starting lineup against Kansas.

It was the first time this season James has come off the bench and the first time the two freshmen, Springer and Keon Johnson, have started together this season.

Springer played well in his debut in the starting lineup recording 13 points, four rebounds and three assists on three-of-seven shooting from the field.

While neither of his backcourt mates reached double figures in the 19-point win over the Jayhawks, both Santiago Vescovi and Keon Johnson played, and had, solid weeks.

Vescovi’s shooting struggled on the week as he continues to deal with a hip pointer, but the sophomore is gritting it out and finding multiple ways to contribute. Vescovi scored eight points against the Bulldogs but did so on a poor two-of-seven shooting from deep.

The Uruguay native also tallied eight points against Kansas but did so on a much more efficient three-of-four shooting. Vescovi tallied only three assists on the week but did grab 13 rebounds including seven against Mississippi State when the Vols struggled to keep the Bulldogs off the glass.

Johnson also turned in a pair of eight point performances on three-of-six and three-of-eight shooting respectively. The freshman added two rebounds and two assists while playing a much better defense than the week before.

Grade: B

Frontcourt

Tennessee’s frontcourt had a strong week with Yves Pons building off his strong play against Missouri and John Fulkerson playing his best game in weeks against Kansas.

Pons was fantastic on the week with his offense hitting another gear and staying hot. Pons tallied 13 points on an efficient six-of-nine shooting against Mississippi State in a game the Vols struggled to score badly. The French native was the Vols’ go to option while adding two rebounds and a block.

Pons’ offensive game just got better against Kansas as the senior scored a game high of 17 points on seven-of-nine shooting from the field and two-of-two shooting from beyond the three-point line. 

Fulkerson was bad in the win over the Bulldogs, hardly getting involved in the game, scoring four points on three shots. The senior added three rebounds and two assists but wasn’t involved on the offensive end.

Against Kansas, Fulkerson looked much more like the player he did a season ago, scoring out of post ups with relative ease. The Kingsport native scored 11 points on eight shots while passing the ball well out of the post, earning three assists. Fulkerson was also better on the glass, tallying six rebounds.

Grade: A

Offense

Tennessee’s offensive struggles continued against Mississippi State. After scoring 15 points in the first five minutes, the Vols scored just 41 points the next 35 minutes.

The Vols shot poorly, making just 37% of attempts from the field and 16% from the three-point line. Tennessee did handle the ball better, turning it over just 11 times, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the poor shooting as the Vols tallied 0.903 points per possession.

Tennessee finally busted out of its offensive slump against Kansas, doing it in a big way by tallying 1.212 points per possession in the Vols’ best shooting performance of the season.

The Vols were fantastic against Kansas, making 53% of attempts from the field and an incredibly impressive eight-of-13 three pointers. Tennessee was also reliable at the free throw line, making 16-of-17 attempts. 

After scoring 80 points for just the second time in the month of January, the question will be whether the Kansas game was an aberration for a poor shooting team or the turn of a new page for the Vols’ offense.

Grade: B+

Defense

After getting torched in losses to Missouri and Florida, Tennessee’s defense returned to form as one of the nation’s best.

First, the Vols suffocated Mississippi State, holding the Bulldogs to 53 points despite giving up 15 offensive rebounds.

The Bulldogs shot just 38% from the field and 23% from the three-point line while turning the ball over 18 times for an abysmal 0.828 points per possession.

Kansas did a much better job of handling UT’s ball pressure, turning it over just seven times. However, the Jayhawks were ice cold Saturday night, shooting just 38% from the field and making just one-of-eight triples in the first half while the Vols built a double digit lead.

After the strong week, Tennessee moved back into KenPom’s top spot in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Grade: A+

Bench

Tennessee’s bench had perhaps its best week of the season and was a huge factor in the Vols ability to get back on track.

Jaden Springer was solid off the bench while returning from injury against Mississippi State. Besides Pons, Springer was UT’s go-to offensive option scoring nine points and dishing out five assists. The 6-foot-5 freshman also grabbed four rebounds.

James responded great to coming off the bench for the first time this season. The sophomore looked confident while knocking down three-of-five threes while grabbing a career high 11 rebounds.

Victor Bailey Jr. continued to struggle in the win over Mississippi State, scoring just two points while going zero-of-five from the field. The transfer guard was much better against the Jayhawks, scoring 11 points on two-of-four shooting from beyond the arc. Bailey also added four assists.

Olivier Nkamhoua had his best week since the beginning of SEC play, looking like a serious contributor off of the bench.

Nkamhoua played 13 minutes against the Bulldogs, recording five points and four rebounds. The sophomore from Finland looked even more comfortable against Kansas, earning a season high 15 minutes while shooting two-of-seven and grabbing three rebounds.

Grade: A

Coaching

Rick Barnes steadied the ship after a tough week, getting UT back on track with two wins.

Having Jaden Springer back in the lineup certainly helped, but Barnes did a great job with his rotations on the week, which was obviously made easier by the bench’s strong performance.

Barnes moving Springer into the starting lineup seemed to pay dividends for both him and James while the sixth-year head coach “come to Jesus” talk with the team Friday seemed to help the Vols snap out of their slump Saturday.

Grade: A

Overall

Tennessee didn’t play great against Mississippi State but got its defense back to form and found a way to get a victory in an ugly game.

The Kansas game was Tennessee’s most consistent and dominant performance of the season. Every Vol who played significant minutes played well and the Vols broke out of their shooting slump.

Tennessee needed to end its home stretch strong and it did. Now the Vols head on the road for matchups at Ole Miss and Kentucky this week.

Grade: A

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