MBB vs. Auburn

Tennessee's Uros Plavsic (33) is helped to his feet by his teammates (from left) Jonas Aidoo, Julian Phillips, and Zakai Zeigler at Thompson-Boling Arena. Saturday Feb. 4, 2023.

For the majority of the No. 6 Vols 2022-23 campaign, they looked to be on an upward trajectory in what seemed to be one of head coach Rick Barnes’ finest coaching jobs. 

Capped off with a dominant win over current No. 5 Texas, everything seemed to be coming together. The offense was beginning to match the intensity brought by the defense every night. 

However, Tennessee’s ascent has taken a nosedive since the beginning of February, leaving fans skeptical just a month ahead of March Madness. The once rare defensive lapses are becoming more frequent, and offensive consistency is nonexistent.

“I think that every team hits a point in time where those things can happen,” Barnes said. “We can talk about it for hours as we do as coaches about different things, but the bottom line is it goes back to and I tell them, winning, you have to choose your hard. Do you want to work hard to be great? Losing is hard.”

Now, the Vols (19-5, 8-3 SEC) look to turn the tide back in their favor and fix their issues against Missouri (18-6, 6-5 SEC).

The Vols will certainly be tested defensively by the Tigers, who boast the No. 9 adjusted offensive efficiency with 119.1 points per 100 possessions. 

“Offensively, they’re going to run and shoot it. Got to take care of the ball,” Barnes said. “But I just talked about it, got to take care of the ball whether you’re in a high-possession game or a low-possession game.”

However, Mizzou’s offensive centric style comes with the cost of a porous defense that focuses on forcing turnovers. 

The Vols can use this game to find rhythm offensively so long as they can limit the turnovers, which Barnes said was the biggest let down against Vanderbilt..

“They’re different in a lot of ways than the teams in the league. They’re going to change defenses. They’re going to pick you up 94 feet. Very active with their hands and they’ll change their defenses. They’ll do a little different zone pressure on the side and under the basket. They can go back and play some zone.”

Heading into SEC action, the Tigers ranked as high as No. 20 before taking a dip in conference play. However, their fate isn’t secure in the NCAA tournament and are looking for a signature win.

As the Vols have seen against Florida and Vandy, desperate teams in February can be dangerous. With an even more important matchup coming up on Wednesday against Alabama, Tennessee must find a way to take care of business and right the ship.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence, we all have confidence. You go through it,” Barnes said. “Every team has gone through it and will go through it at some point in time. I’ll be just really disappointed if we don’t handle it. I just think we have a group of guys that care about each other, that want to win.”

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