The No. 22 Vols defeated Butler 71-45 on Wednesday night in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Vols came out sluggish offensively, but their defense was strong throughout. The offense finally kicked it into gear in the second half, helping them pull away for the blowout win.
“It was a very physical first half and I thought the way we closed the first half was a very important part of the game,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “We got some great play from our bench with some key guys in foul trouble not playing the minutes they normally play. Overall a terrific team win for us.”
Here are some takeaways from the win.
Tale of two halves
The difference from the first half and the second half was night and day. Turnovers continue to be an issue for this team without a true point guard. The Vols turned it over 12 times in the first half and didn’t lead until the 1:23 mark.
Tennessee found rhythm heading into the break and let it fuel them the rest of the game. Once the Vols led, they didn’t let up. The defense kept form while the shooting went from 41% from the field and 14% from beyond the arc to 53% and 50%.
“Defense is really important for us as a program and I think in the second half it was more of a mentality thing,” senior guard Santiago Vescovi said. “I think in the second half too we got the rhythm and I think the most important thing we have to do is let the defense dictate our offense.”
The Vols committed just four second half turnovers and it translated to a 26-point lead at the sound of the buzzer.
The Vols’ offense is stagnant at times, but Barnes’ gritty style of defense is still able to keep them in games. By halftime, the Vol defense had forced 13 turnovers but scored just 28 points, and many of those came in the waning minutes. That is a problem — simple as that. Tennessee must find a way to consistently capitalize off mistakes.
The main issue is the lack of identity. The team wants to run fast, but there is a difference between fast and out of control. Someone needs to step in and be that guy to get the offense going. Zakai Zeigler is technically the only point guard in the rotation, but that is not his style of play.
When this team gets momentum, it is very difficult to stop as shown towards the end of the first half. However, when things aren’t going well offensively, it can be tough to watch. Santiago Vescovi has shown the ability to do so, but not at the consistent basis that this team needs.
Luckily, the Vols picked things up in the second half and were dominant. They continue to show the potential that this team has, but have yet to show consistency on the offensive side of the ball. Barnes seems to think it’s simply due to the volatility of the early season schedule.
“I do think we’re a good offensive team, but we’ve had no rhythm to our season so far,” he said. “Play a game, off a week — we haven’t played in a week until tonight and knowing that you’re coming here to play three games, it’s not like we’re able to do what we normally would like to do once we get a routine down.”
This team is loaded with talent and is one of Barnes’ best teams in terms of pure firepower. It just needs someone that can bring everything together.
Santiago Vescovi is the X-factor
There may be more talented players on the team, but Vescovi is one of the most important pieces of this team. Once he got going offensively, the team took off with him. In the first half, Vescovi was 0-2 from the field, both on forced threes. He was not playing aggressively and the team suffered as a result.
In the second half he was looking to make a difference and had all 13 of his points on 5-7 shooting splits. There was a stretch where he hit three three-pointers in a minute and a half as part of a 17-1 run by Tennessee.
Vescovi is the key to how Barnes wants his offense to run. Wherever he goes, the team goes with him. His role as a three-point sniper, defender and initiator when he settles down is invaluable to the team.