As Tennessee gets ready for the NCAA tournament and prepares to try and make a deep run through March, it’s important to remember how Tennessee got to where it is now. Let’s take a look back at some of the defining moments of the Tennessee season so far.
Tennessee started its 2020-2021 campaign two weeks after its intended start date against Colorado due to positive COVID-19 tests in the Tennessee program.
Tennessee was able to put together a 56-47 win against the Buffaloes.
Preseason All American guard McKinley Wright had just eight points against Tennessee and was smothered by its defense for most of the game.
Tennessee was led in scoring by Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson, who both had 11 points in their time on the court.
Colorado has finished the season as a top 25 team and played in the PAC-12 championship.
In the first game of the season, Tennessee gave a glimpse of how good its defense could become once it got to cultivate the talent Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson have.
“That’s what they do, they really are good at ball-hawking, ” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on Springer and Johnson’s defensive ability. “They will get in there and we talk about tackling the ball, getting your guy in your grasp and try to take the ball away from them and both of those guys have that ability.”
Tennessee would run through its non-conference schedule undefeated with multiple games in which it scored over 100 points, but the real test for Tennessee would come when it traveled to 12 ranked Missouri to open up SEC play.
Like in the non-conference, Tennessee would inflict its will on its opponent as it dominated Missouri in route to a 73-53 win on the road.
Tennessee had four players in double digits and shot 50% from the field along with shooting 71% from behind the three-point line for the game.
Defensively, Tennessee was even better as it held a tough Missouri team to just 36% shooting from the field and 18% from behind the three-point line.
Tennessee made a statement in its first SEC game, but for the team, it was all about playing to its standards.
“I don’t think it’s about showing people anything, it’s just showing to ourselves what we can really do,” Santiago Vescovi said. “ We showed it tonight. At some points, I think we could have done a better job. We have a lot of room to improve.”
Tennessee would go 5-4 in its next nine games. In those games, some glaring weaknesses showed themselves. Tennessee struggled to shoot the ball consistently and specifically from behind the three-point line.
This problem would lead to losses against Alabama and Missouri at home. The worst loss, however, was a 49-75 loss at Florida, in which Tennessee had its worst shooting performances of the season and turned the ball over an abhorrent amount.
Post-play would also be a problem for Tennessee, as Fulkerson wasn’t playing to his potential and Yves Pons struggled through injuries.
Tennessee would continue its inconsistent play and would earn an impressive 80-61 win against Kansas in Thompson-Boling Arena to its resume. Tennessee had an uncharacteristically good shooting day, recording 52% from the field and 61% from behind the three-point line in the win.
In the usual tradition, Tennessee followed up the Kansas game with a demoralizing road loss to Ole Miss, with a road matchup against Kentucky likely on the mind.
The trip to Lexington to face the Wildcats would bring a point of revelation to the Tennessee season, specifically the freshmen.
Fulkerson was on the bench most of the game due to foul trouble, and Pons was still not completely healthy, so the burden to rise to the occasion and come out of the game victorious was laid upon the Springer and Johnson.
Rise to the occasion they would.
Springer had 23 points on nine of 17 shooting from the field along with five rebounds. Johnson led the team in scoring with 27 points on nine of 16 shooting from the field along with nine made free throws and four rebounds. Tennessee would pull out an 82-71 win against its fiercest rival and set a course to rely more on its freshman stars as the season progressed.
“I thought those guys got in a rhythm where they could be in attack mode,” Barnes said on Springer and Johnson in the second half against Kentucky. “The last couple days in practice, all we talked about was run, run, run, get out in transition, try to get easy baskets, and try to get teams on the backs of their heels.”
Inconsistency would still plague the Vols the remainder of the regular season as losses to Auburn, LSU and Kentucky would slow down the progression of the team, but a senior day matchup with Florida would still give Tennessee the opportunity of a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
Tennessee would rise to the occasion on senior day against the Gators and return to the form they showed early in the season, but most importantly, Fulkerson showed flashes of what made him one of the most feared post players in the SEC last season.
Fulkerson had 14 points and seven rebounds on six-of-10 shooting from the field. He played with the tenacity and quickness he had been missing for most of the season.
“No one loves this university more than he does,” Barnes said of Fulkerson. “I think he would tell you he’s been a Volunteer his whole life, and for him it was an emotional day. For him to come out and play aggressive and with the force that he did at times is what we need. I’m happy for him.”
The great play would give Tennessee a 65-54 victory.
Tennessee would carry over its newfound rhythm into the SEC tournament, in which it would get another dominant win against Florida, winning 78-66.
In the win, Tennessee would lose Fulkerson, who sustained facial injuries and is in concussion protocol due to an elbow from Florida’s Omar Payne.
In Fulkerson’s absence, Tennessee would put together a valiant effort against top-seeded Alabama but would come up just short, losing 73-68.
As Tennessee now prepares to learn its NCAA tournament draw, Barnes is excited about what he’s seen from his team the past few weeks and how it can translate into a tournament run.
“I like where our team is right now,” Barnes said. “I'm not afraid to play whoever we got to play. This team is going to play their hearts out. They’re going to go at it. That’s all we can ask for from them.”