Tennessee finished up its pre conference slate Wednesday, with the Vols improving to 6-0 in a 80-60 victory over USC Upstate.
Tennessee started slow against the winless Spartans but grabbed a lead early and extended it late as the Vols’ offense caught fire down the stretch.
Here are three takeaways.
Spartans find success behind the arc
For the second straight game, Tennessee’s defense didn’t look like the dominant, punishing unit it looked like in the season’s first four games.
USC Upstate tallied 60 points against the Vols, just the second team to do so this season. USC Upstate also had the highest points per possession against Tennessee this season, tallying a .923 rate.
USC Upstate shot 43% from the field including an impressive 50% from three-point range. The Spartans nine made threes were crucial in their offensive success and helped keep them in arms reach of Tennessee for much of the game.
"Tonight they were patient," Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of the Spartans. "Our guards didn’t do a very good job of getting back in front of the ball. They kept stringing it out and we switched like we do when the clocks under 10 minutes normally, and they did a great job of getting it there. They went at John Fulkerson in the post, but with threes, they are going to make some and that’s what they do. Yet, with that said, I don’t know if you can do more but try to push them out a bit further and overall we were okay, but you go into every game trying to take away their top two options the best way you can, and we’ve done a pretty good job at it, but not very good tonight.”
Only three USC Upstate players made triples but all three shot it at a consistent rate with Tommy Bruner making four-of-six attempts, Bryson Mozone made three-of-five attempts and Everette Hammond made two-of-three attempts.
“Coach Schwartz always says that when teams are hitting tough shots, ‘We’ll live. We’ll live with those,'" Victor Bailey Jr. said. "Our job is to make them hit tough shots. If we can do that the whole game and they keep hitting tough shots, the kudos to them. But, forcing tough shots and tough twos, that’s what we want.”
Offense starts slow, takes off late
Coming off two straight games scoring 100 points, Tennessee struggled to open the game on the offensive end. The Vols came out slow against the undermatched Spartans scoring just 33 points on 41% shooting and a poor 20% from three-point range.
The Vols turned it over four times in the game’s opening minutes and also had a six and a half minute stretch in the second half with just one field goal.
Tennessee opened things up on USC Upstate in the second half, scoring 47 points while pushing its lead to a comfortable double digit margin.
Tennessee bounced back from behind the three point line, making half of its six attempts.
Leading the way for Tennessee’s offense was redshirt junior Victor Bailey Jr. who tallied a game high 18 points. Wednesday’s game was the second straight where Bailey led the Vols in scoring.
The Oregon transfer has developed into a reliable scorer in the young season, tallying 13.1 points per game on 38% shooting from three point range.
Tennessee got red hot in the games final minutes, making 16 of its final 18 shots
One of the biggest questions facing No. 8 Tennessee is whether they can develop interior depth behind stars John Fulkerson and Yves Pons.
Grad transfer E.J. Anosike was brought in for that reason and has become the Vols’ third post player, earning 14 minutes a game.
Behind Anosike is where it gets tricky for Tennessee. Sophomore Olivier Nkamhoua has earned the bulk of those minutes early in the season and for the second straight game, Nkamhoua gave the Vols’ strong minutes.
"Olivier looked more relaxed overall tonight than any point in time since he's been here," Barnes said. "I thought he really moved well without the ball. He made some really nice basket cuts and he was very comfortable catching the ball and finishing at the rim.”
A game after scoring six points in nine minutes and adding three rebounds, the 6-foot-8 forward tallied nine points on a perfect four-of-four shooting, adding a rebound and an assist.
Nkamhoua also had an impressive block in the first half.
“I feel like its in the fact that there’s a lot for me to learn and not trying to force myself to feel like when I go out there I need to be perfect," Nkamhoua said on the key to his improved play. "I just need to play hard. I need to get better every minute I’m on the court. I need to get better even on the bench when I’m watching my teammates play. I need to get better at every practice and I need to prepare for the games as best I can.”
Barnes will be more concerned with getting Nkamhoua’s rebounding numbers up than he will be his scoring, but the improved offensive play is a good sign for the forward that looked lost at times last season.
St. Joe’s and USC Upstate aren’t the best competition but Nkamhoua’s play has been a positive sign that he can grow into a reliable bench player for Tennessee.
Nkamhoua has recorded three fouls in the last two games and that’s something he’ll have to improve on heading into SEC play.
After playing three games in six days, the Vols will have a week off around Christmas before returning to the hardwood on Dec. 30 at Missouri. The Vols players won’t travel to their homes for Christmas but Barnes indicated that Tennessee had made plans to help parents travel to Knoxville for the Holidays.
Tipoff from Columbia is set for 9 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.