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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Colorado was coming off a Friday night loss at Grambling State and Tennessee was 16-point favorites with two preseason wins over top programs and an easy season opening win over Tennessee Tech.
Those factors mattered little as Colorado turned a tight halftime difference into a, 78-66, upset win over the Vols inside of Bridgestone Arena.
“We definitely didn’t come into this game with the right mindset,” Tennessee forward Josiah-Jordan James said. “I feel like personally since we got big wins in the preseason over two pretty good teams that we were thinking we could go out there and get it done like coach said.”
A top 15 team can roll out of bed and beat a middling foe in some sports but not college basketball. College hoops is where the unexpected becomes the ordinary.
However, the uncharacteristic mistakes that led to Tennessee’s first loss as a 12-plus point favorite in Rick Barnes’ tenure were the mistakes that cost you basketball games at any level.
The Vols’ starting backcourt played terribly. Zakai Zeigler turned it over twice in the game’s first two minutes and never looked comfortable on the floor on his way to scoring just 12 points with four assists.
After coming off the bench last season, Zeigler’s transition to starting point guard hasn’t been smooth. Barnes told Zeigler that he isn’t going to start when Tennessee hosts Florida Gulf Coast Wednesday night.
“Zakai was wild,” Barnes said. “Tonight, he was out of control. … When things aren’t going well one guy can’t think I’m going to go make this happen and throwing up shots.”
Santiago Vescovi is one of two returning First Team All-SEC selections from a season ago but has looked uncomfortable offensively dating back to the Gonzaga exhibition. The senior shooting guard made two-of-13 shots and turned it over four times against Colorado.
Missing shots early has kept Vescovi from getting into a rhythm and the lefty has pressed offensively afterwards.
“I think he tries to do too much,” Barnes said. “I think he needs to play the role we need him to play. When he’s not making shots and he’s still open he has to shoot the ball because I think guys are expecting him to shoot it and when he starts driving, he and Z(akai) both are out of control.”
Tennessee once again shot poorly from the perimeter — 27% from three-point range — and after settling for jump shots in the first half the Vols attacked the basket and got a handful of good looks in the second. It didn’t matter as Tennessee couldn’t get the easy ones to go and finished the game three-of-16 on shots at the rim.
More From RTI: Three Quick Takeaways From Tennessee’s Loss Against Colorado
Shooting numbers aside, Tennessee’s offensive issues start and end with its guard play. The backcourt of Zeigler and Vescovi is supposed to be one of this team’s strengths. It was a weakness against the Buffs.
Defense was another Tennessee strength turned weakness Sunday. The first half was played in the mud for both teams and while the Vols were stuck in it in the second half, Colorado exploded out for a 46 point half on over 50% shooting.
Tennessee couldn’t stop Colorado’s guards off the dribble leading to the Buffs getting “whatever they wanted in the second half.”
Colorado didn’t just upset Tennessee but they were the better team and were by far the better team in the final 20 minutes. The Buffs exposed Tennessee’s flaws and more importantly made its perceived strengths look like weaknesses.
Colorado deserves credit and reminded a largely veteran Tennessee team the importance of showing up every day.
“We played like we were complacent, whether we were or we weren’t,” Barnes said. “I know this, we did not play with a sense of urgency that we have in the three games prior to this. We didn’t.”
In reality, losing to Colorado isn’t going to mean much in two months. The regular season means less in college basketball than it does in any other sport. The takeaway from this game in two months could easily be how much Tennessee learned and improved from it. But the Vols will have to take the disappointment and grow from it.
“Of course I’m disappointed and mad that we lost but I’m also excited just to see how this team will respond because there’s a lot of great things that’s come before this team but it’s not just going to be handed to us and I’m excited to see how we’ll respond throughout the rest of the season,” James said. “I think this loss will be very good for us.”