After a blowout loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Tennessee traveled to Vanderbilt for a midweek battle. Vanderbilt was without Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu as the Vols were able to survive a slow start to win 70-58.
Here are three takeaways.
Inconsistent first half
For Tennessee, most of the first half was a carryover offensively from Saturday’s loss against Kentucky.
Vanderbilt was without its two best players who account for more than 40% of the Commodores offense. Tennessee’s inability to create offense for itself helped Vanderbilt stay in the game.
John Fulkerson was a non-factor in the first half for Tennessee as he picked up two early fouls and ended up playing just six minutes. He recorded four points and two rebounds but couldn’t help spark his team.
Vanderbilt was able to hold onto a lead late into the first half on account of the play of Trey Thomas who led the Commodores with nine points on three of four shooting from behind the three-point line.
Tennessee also contributed 10 first-half turnovers to the cause. Tennessee finished with 17 turnovers.
“We turned it over way too many times tonight, and most of those turnovers had nothing to do with (Vanderbilt) and everything to do with us, ” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
Vanderbilt held a 20-17 lead with 6:28 left to go in the first half.
That would be the last lead Vanderbilt would hold as Tennessee would outscore them 15-2 to close out the first half.
Jaden Springer and Yves Pons were two of Tennessee’s best players in the final minutes of the first half.
Springer had eight points on three-of-five shooting from the field along with two made free throws and two rebounds.
Pons had six points on three-of-five shooting from the field and grabbed four rebounds. He was also a terror on defense, even though he had just one block.
The 15-2 stretch helped Tennessee take a 32-22 lead into half despite the slow start.
Bailey stays hot
Ever since his return to the starting lineup against South Carolina, Victor Bailey Jr. has been Tennessee’s best offensive threat and tonight was no different.
Bailey had 29 points against South Carolina and he had 18 points against Kentucky.
Vanderbilt wasn’t able to slow Bailey down as he went for 21 points on seven-of-14 shooting from the field but was even more impressively five-of-eight from behind the three-point line along with three rebounds and three assists. Bailey made five of Tennessee’s six three-pointers tonight.
“My teammates were finding me and getting me open looks, ” Bailey said. “I was able to hit my shots.”
Tennessee needs a player that can spread the floor and create shots from behind the three-point line for themselves to help spread the floor for the plethora of athletes Tennessee has down the stretch and Bailey can be that for the Vols.
Bailey has averaged just 11 points this season on 41% shooting from the floor and 35% from behind the three-point line.
While those percentages might not be eye-popping when Bailey is feeling it for behind the three-point line he's one of the best shooters in the conference.
Bailey has averaged 61% shooting from behind the three-point line in the last three games. If he can average just 40% shooting the rest of the season he makes Tennessee much more lethal offensively.
“We think he can be a good on-ball defender, ” Barnes said on Bailey. “We still think he needs to keep going downhill. He’s letting the game come to him and not doing too much.
Small ball time
Coming into the season Tennessee was expected to rely heavily on its two seniors in Pons and Fulkerson.
Both got off to slow starts but as the season has progressed Pons started to find his rhythm and contribute to the team.
Fulkerson has yet to find that rhythm and as a result, it’s forced Tennessee to play a smaller lineup with Pons at the center and Josiah Jordan James or Keon Johnson at power forward.
While Fulkerson had to go to the bench tonight Tennessee sent its small-ball lineup onto the court and once again produced a run that cemented what Tennessee needs to do moving forward.
Tennessee is better with Fulkerson coming off of the bench. James needs to be starting at power forward with Bailey, Springer and Johnson starting at the guard positions.
Springer had 20 points tonight on five-of-eight shooting from the field along with a perfect 10-for-10 showing from the free-throw line. He also helped Johnson in scoring the last 10 points and put the game away.
“They were big, ” Bailey said of Springer and Johnson. “Keon had a big dunk to seal the deal for us and get us our mojo. Jaden played well, making layups and solid passes along with the right decisions. We need those guys.”
James, while still dealing with a wrist injury, had five rebounds and three steals.
Pons finished the game with 10 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
This lineup has resulted in some of the best stretches of basketball for Tennessee by far this season and tonight was another perfect example of why Tennessee needs to lean into this lineup down the stretch if it wants to try and reach its full potential as a team.
Tennessee will try to continue its success on the road against Auburn on Saturday at noon ET on ESPN.