The Tennessee Vols men’s basketball team opened (and closed) their preseason slate last night with a win over the Tusculum University Pioneers. Being an exhibition game against a D-II opponent, Rick Barnes naturally used a healthy rotation down the stretch. Still, being the Vols only true exhibition game (yes, that November 6 match-up with also-D-II Lenoir-Rhyne is regular season), Barnes also had to make sure his top unit was fine-tuned for the mid-November stretch which will likely see the Vols take on Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Kansas in the course of just 11 days.
Tennessee started a tad slow before bursting out to 20-5 lead and holding the Pioneers to just 14 first half points. Defense was the name of the game for the Vols last season and this squad looks ready to pick up right where they left off. Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams truly protected the rim and were my defensive MVP’s, but the entire unit did a great job cutting off passing lanes and harassing ball handlers. The Vols did proceed to give up 34 in the second half, but in an exhibition game that you win by 40, I’m much more concerned about how you play when the intensity is still there in the first half. By that metric, the Vols’ defense looks to be in mid-season form.
Offensively, it was a “share the wealth” type game. No single player stood out as the focus of the offense and that is a trend we will likely see all season with this team. Jordan Bowden (16 pts) and Williams (15 pts, 3 rebs, 3 blks) led the Vols scoring attack, but Admiral Schofield added 9 and Jordan Bone and Derrick Walker both had 8. Yves Pons also hit a pair of three pointers which was a very welcome sight to fans who are just begging for that potential to be unlocked.
It’s hard to ascertain too much from a game in which Tennessee was so clearly superior in both talent and athleticism, but the Tennessee of last night looked a great deal like the Tennessee of last season. The Vols still look to have seven or eight players who can score double digits on any given night and, again, not many teams will be able to break down this defense. By all accounts, nothing last night gives me any reason to think this isn’t last year’s roster with just another year of experience (spoiler: it is).
There were a few concerns last night. First, Grant Williams only had 3 rebounds, a fact which was not lost on Barnes in the post-game media access. “That’s an attitude… The fact is, he’s not making the effort to get to the boards,” Barnes told the press. Your best forward only grabbing 3 boards in an exhibition game is no biggie on its own, but Barnes’ statements seem to indicate this is something Barnes has been monitoring. Here’s hoping Williams goes out and pulls down 13 in the season opener, but keep an eye on that story.
Other than that, Lamonte Turner’s night was pretty unimpressive. No major miscues or defensive mistakes, but I just largely forgot he was on the the court at times. For a team in which point guard is undoubtedly the weakest position, Barnes will need more from his backup signal caller this season. Turner is notoriously streaky, so, again, probably nothing to worry about. Again, Tennessee looked largely very good, it’s just easier to point out concerns that accolades in a game like last night.
Tusculum made it an 8-5 game before the Vols went on an 12-0 run and ran the lead up to 15. That run was largely thanks to Jordan Bowden’s stellar defense for which he was rewarded by steal into an open court dunk. The Vols were never at risk of losing this one, but Bowden’s dunk to cap off the run put Tusculum away for good just minutes into the game.
Player of the Game
The Player of the Game was definitely Bowden who, again, did a great job shutting down passing lanes and forcing turnovers and led the team in scoring with 16. The Vols desperately need more production from their guards this season and last night was a welcome sight in that regard.
I’d also like to mention Pons here, though. He didn’t put up the points that Bowden did, but he demonstrated last night his ability to guard any position on the court, even pressing the opposing point guard for most of the game, and he knocked down two three pointers which was arguably the biggest weakness in his game. If teams are forced to respect that shot, Pons will be a monster cutting to the basket this season. Let’s give him Most Improved Player of the Game.
The Vols open the regular season Tuesday, November 6 at home against the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears and follow that up on Friday, November 9 at home against the Lousiana (still not cool with them dropping “Lafayette”) Ragin’ Cajuns.
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