Tennessee’s weekend in Nashville came to an end earlier than the Vols hoped as they narrowly fell to Alabama in the tournament semifinals. Still, the Vols added another strong win to their resume, beating Florida, before playing a strong 35 minutes against Alabama, showing they can play with the best heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s how the Vols’ graded out.
Tennessee started with three guards (Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson) in its quarterfinal win over Florida before adding a fourth guard, Josiah Jordan James, to the starting lineup against Alabama due to John Fulkerson’s face injury.
The Vols’ scoring was balanced on the week but Johnson led Tennessee on the offensive end while being a locked-in force on the defensive end. The freshman from Shelbyville, Tennessee scored 13 points against Florida and 20 against Alabama, including 16 in the first half, on a combined 14-of-27 shooting from the field.
Johnson’s scoring was just part of what he brought to the table as he played a strong defense while adding 18 rebounds.
Fellow freshman Jaden Springer struggled offensively in the first half against Florida, going scoreless on zero-of-six shooting. However, he turned it around in the second half and was a reliable offensive scorer the rest of the tournament.
Springer scored 11 second-half points against Florida on four-of-six shooting. The Charlotte, NC native kept it going against Alabama, scoring 18 points on seven-of-17 shooting.
The one major issue for the pair of freshmen was their turnovers, especially against Alabama, combining for 16 turnovers on the week to just 13 assists.
Vescovi found a way to make a bigger impact on the offensive end than he had in the previous week. The Uruguay native tallied 25 points on seven-of-15 shooting from beyond the three-point line. The sophomore also dished out nine assists to just four turnovers.
Inserted into the starting lineup against Alabama, James was average while dealing with foul trouble. The sophomore recorded just four points and six rebounds in the loss.
Tennessee’s frontcourt was having perhaps its best game of the season against Florida. John Fulkerson was continuing his strong play from the regular-season finale, scoring eight points on four shots while Yves Pons had three points, three rebounds and six blocks at halftime.
Then Florida’s Omar Payne hit Fulkerson with a pair of nasty elbows, fracturing the Tennessee forward's face, ending his SEC Tournament and leaving his availability for the NCAA Tournament in doubt.
Pons finished the game strong, adding eight more points, five more rebounds and three more blocks in the second half. Pons’ nine blocks was a Tennessee single-game record and tied the SEC Tournament record. The senior from France was just one block and two rebounds away from recording a triple-double.
As the lone starting forward against Alabama, Pons was less effective but still solid, recording seven points, five rebounds and two blocks.
After having back-to-back weeks off heading into a weekend of action it seems clear Pons’ knee is healthier than it was in February, a huge key to the Vols’ defensive success going forward.
Tennessee’s offense was solid in Nashville and good besides the 28-point second half against Alabama.
Against Florida, Tennessee’s offense was great, scoring 78 points and shooting 47% from the field and 36% from the three-point range. The Vols also had balance against Florida, with its leading scorer scoring just 14 points and five Tennessee players scoring in double digits.
Against Alabama, Tennessee had much of the same positives from the Florida win. Tennessee shot 42% from the field and 33% from the three-point line, scoring 68 points against one of the nation’s best defensive teams.
The difference between the Alabama game and the Florida game was Tennessee’s turnovers. The Vols took care of the ball relatively well against Florida, turning it over just 13 times before struggling badly with Alabama’s ball pressure, turning it over 19 times, including 11 in the first half.
Tennessee’s patented scoring droughts didn’t go away either in Nashville, though they were limited better. The Vols had scoring droughts of 4:17 and 2:25 against Florida and their 5:10 scoring drought in the second half against Alabama allowed the Tide to go on a 14-0 run that cut UT’s lead from 15 to one.
Outside of Florida guard Tre Mann’s incredible 28 point second half, Tennessee’s defense was very strong in the SEC Tournament.
Florida had to scratch and claw its way to 66 points and without Mann’s phenomenal shooting the Gators may have been in a battle to reach 50.
Against Alabama, Tennessee’s defense was strong, forcing 17 turnovers while holding the Crimson Tide to 37% shooting from the field and 25% shooting from three-point range. Tennessee’s defense was hurt by its own offense as the Vols committed four offensive fouls in the first eight minutes of the second half.
Alabama was able to score 73 points thanks to 13 made free throws and a strong last five minutes that saw them capitalize on mismatches Alabama head coach Nate Oats was able to create (more on this below).
Overall, you saw Tennessee return to its early-season form of being completely locked in on the defensive end with a commitment to winning games there but not with what they do on offense.
Tennessee’s bench provided mixed results in the SEC Tournament.
Coming off the bench against Florida, James was excellent, scoring 12 points on four-of-five shooting from the field while adding nine rebounds, five assists, a block and no turnovers.
More good came from Uros Plavsisc, who after being nonexistent from most of the season played the strong post minutes off the bench Tennessee has been looking for all season.
Plavsic tallied just six points and four rebounds on the week but played 22 solid minutes. Throughout his two years in Knoxville, the Serbia native didn’t seem quick enough to play at the SEC level, but Plavsic held his own against Alabama, a team that is guard-heavy and plays fast-paced.
Plavsic’s performance was an encouraging sign for a Tennessee frontcourt that will likely be overhauled at the end of the season. The Vols need him to stay locked in though as he could play a major role if Fulkerson is unavailable in Indianapolis this weekend.
The bad on the week was the play of Victor Bailey Jr. Bailey had been on a strong shooting stretch heading into the tournament, but struggled badly in Nashville, scoring just 11 points on three-of-14 shooting.
After three straight strong performances where Tennessee has been completely locked into the defensive side of the ball, it seems clear that Rick Barnes has gotten some message through to his team.
Barnes deserves credit for that but now he and his team have to take advantage of the recent strong play with results in the NCAA Tournament if they don’t want this season to be seen as a disappointment.
The sixth-year head coach also had his team ready for Alabama and its three-point shooting barrage on offense. The Vols limited Alabama’s open perimeter looks and played the Tide better than they did in the first meeting in January.
Despite what was a good week for Barnes, there’s still room for some criticism. Tennessee switching ball screens late led to Alabama setting screens to get mismatches they wanted. Alabama and Nate Oats were able to take advantage of Tennessee’s defensive strategy to get Vescovi on SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones or Plavsic on point guard Jahvon Quinerly.
Down three with 15 seconds left, Tennessee called a timeout to get an open look for the tie. Barnes’ play led to an out of sort possession that ended with a contested three-point attempt from Bailey.
Tennessee showed progress in Nashville, building off its strong regular-season finale with two more solid performances.
The showing left fans and Barnes more confident in the team heading into the NCAA Tournament. Barnes even said he knows what he’s going to get from his team every time out, a major change for a team that’s struggled with consistency badly the past month of the season.
Still, a 15-point blown second-half lead against Alabama was a missed opportunity for Tennessee to play in its third straight SEC Tournament Championship game.
Tennessee showed what type of team it can be when it plays to its potential, but also showed that one major mistake, like a four plus minute scoring drought, can drown you against good teams in tournament play.