Tennessee stayed true to form coming off of the Wednesday win against Vanderbilt by following it up with a loss. Auburn was without star guard Sharife Cooper but it wouldn’t matter as Tennessee was once again unable to string together two wins as the Tigers would win 77-72.
Here are three takeaways.
Disjointed first-half offense
Tennessee wasn’t able to find any answers to its recent abysmal offensive performances in the first half against Auburn.
Tennessee made just nine first-half field goals on 24 shot attempts but was able to go six-for-12 from behind the three-point line.
Three-point shots finally fell for Tennessee but most were caused by its inability to get into the paint and create offense by driving the ball, so it was forced to take sometimes ill-advised three-pointers.
Long droughts also accompanied the disjointed offense in the first half. Tennessee had four spans of two-minute droughts between made shots and one three-minute drought. Tennessee also failed to score in the final 2:52 of the first half.
Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson were the main creators of offense for Tennessee in the first half.
Springer had eight points on two-of-two shooting from behind the three-point line with two made free throws. He also had two rebounds and an assist.
Johnson had 10 points on three-of-four shooting from the field and four-of-four shooting from the free-throw line.
Tennessee also turned the ball over eight times in the first half.
Auburn was only able to carry a 34-30 lead into the half because of all the Tennessee made three-pointers.
No post presence
It's the problem that has kept Tennessee from succeeding all season and it was once again reared its ugly head against Auburn.
John Fulkerson was expected to be the guy for Tennessee in the post this season that could get points and hustle for rebounds but he hasn’t lived up to that pressure.
Today was no different for Fulkerson as he had just four points and four rebounds. He also led the team in turnovers with four in just 19 minutes of play.
In his stead, Olivier Nkamhoua and E.J. Anosike took turns at the center position.
Nkamhoua played just four minutes, he had one rebound and a block. Anosike played one minute and picked up a foul.
Yves Pons was and has been Tennessee’s best option in the post for a while now and he once again showed it today.
Pons had 10 points, eight rebounds, one assist and one block today which is great production but he’s only 6-foot-6. He has the athleticism to play above the rim but inevitably other teams have players that are true post players that use their size to dominate for position.
Auburn was able to use its size against Tennessee today as the Tigers dominated the boards with 41 rebounds to just 34 for Tennessee. Auburn also had 19 second chance points.
“Maybe we need to change some things in our program, ” Tennessee head Rick Barnes said. “We’re just not rebounding the ball at all.”
If Fulkerson can’t get it done then Tennessee needs to give someone else a chance at more minutes at the center position to see what they can bring.
“We don't have a post game right now and it's putting so much on the freshmen,” Barnes said. “We haven't had everybody playing to their ability in several weeks.”
Freshman shine once again
Outside of Pons, One of the other bright spots for Tennessee, today was the play of Springer and Johnson.
“I thought Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Yves Pons did exactly what we wanted them to do, ” Barnes on who played well today. “Other than that, not so much.”
The inability to create offense in the paint and make three-pointers at times has forced Tennessee to put the weight of the offense on the back of the freshman, the duo stepped up once again today.
Springer finished with 20 points, five rebounds and six assists along with two steals. He also went an impressive three-for-four from behind the three-point line.
Johnson was also impressive as he scored 23 points on 52.9% shooting from the floor along with grabbing three rebounds and going a perfect four-of-four from the free-throw line.
The freshman duo has been put into impossible positions at times this year and while they’ve been able to step up and rise to the occasion more times than not this year, forcing Springer and Johnson to do the heavy lifting has hampered this team down the stretch.
“I feel like we've learned a lot this season, with the postseason coming up there's no room for error, ” Johnson said.
Tennessee will have a week off until Florida comes to Thompson-Boling Arena on March 7 for noon ET tipoff for senior day.