Tennessee faced its first real challenge of the season Saturday afternoon when it squared off with No. 5 Villanova at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut. The No. 17 Vols dropped the ball in their first test, falling to the Wildcats 71-53.
Here are three takeaways from Tennessee’s embarrassing loss to Villanova.
Offense struggles mightily
The most glaring issue for the Vols was a complete lack of offense. After putting up 90+ points in the first two games of the season, the Vols flopped Saturday.
Many of Tennessee’s biggest contributors looked lost on offense. Olivier Nkamhoua had the most disappointing day. He entered the matchup averaging a double-double but was held scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting from the field with 3 fouls.
Josiah-Jordan James scored just 2 points and missed all 6 attempts he took from deep. Kennedy Chandler scored 6 on 11% shooting, and John Fulkerson added 4 points on just a pair of shots.
“We need the veterans. We need those guys,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “Like I’ve said from the beginning, our team this year, we’ve got an older group of guys and then we’ve got a bunch of young guys. Early in the year, you definitely need your veterans to step up and play. You expect Kennedy, you expect some of those young guys to make some mistakes, but you need our older guys to be more productive than they were today.”
Guard Santiago Vescovi was the only Vol to show up. He led the game with 23 points, had a team-high 6 rebounds and 3 steals. Vescovi shot 41% from the field, but made 4 triples and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line.
Failed the first test
Barnes scheduled one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the nation for a reason — Tennessee would be able to see early on exactly what its flaws were in a way that wouldn’t happen against teams like UT Martin or ETSU.
Villanova exposed Tennessee’s offensive flaws. Tennessee shot just 33% from the field, including a 17% mark from three-point range — an area in which the Vols had previously thrived. They had the same good looks they were taking in previous games, but the shots didn’t fall this time. To make matters worse, the Vols let the misses carry over into other aspects of the game.
“We let missed shots affect us,” Barnes said. “We lost our aggression on defense. But you’ve got to give them (Villanova) credit too.”
The Wildcats outrebounded Tennessee 41-39, including 27 defensive rebounds, severely limiting Tennessee’s second chances. The Vols committed 18 turnovers — 14 in the first half alone — just one fewer than their first half points (15).
Tennessee was in foul trouble all day, as Chandler missed significant time early on with a pair of fouls. James, Uros Plavsic and Nkamhoua all spent time out of the game in foul trouble as well.
There’s no other way to put it. Villanova outplayed Tennessee.
It’s still early
The good news for the Vols is that their season doesn’t end with this loss. They are only three games in a marathon of a season, and a loss of this fashion early in the year is exactly what Barnes wanted the Vols to experience.
“I felt coming in that it would be a great game for us to play against Villanova,” Barnes said. “I think anytime you get a chance to play them, you’re going to come out of the game learning a lot about yourself and your team. We did, and we’ve got a chance to get better from it.”
Tennessee now has plenty to learn and tweak from this loss. Of course there’s plenty to work on offensively, from the missed shots, turnovers and lack of overall effort.
Barnes hoped the Vols would be inspired by watching a perennial program at work. Villanova knows what it takes to win, which is something the Vols can learn from as the season progresses.
“I think just watching (Villanova), their effort and the way they dove on every single 50/50 ball, I think is going to show us where we’ve got to get to if we want to win a national championship,” Vescovi said. “That’s what it takes, and I think this is good for us. It’s going to help everyone on the team learn where we’ve got to get to.”
The Vols won’t have much turnaround after a tough loss. They’ll have another challenging matchup tomorrow afternoon, playing the winner of No. 6 Purdue and No. 18 North Carolina in the final game of the Tournament at 3:30 p.m. EST.