Photo via Tennessee Athletics
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The first half of Tennessee’s 66-54 loss at Kentucky looked a lot like its 28-point loss at Rupp Arena a season ago. The Wildcats dominated from the opening tip through the next 20 minutes and built a 20-point first half lead.
Tennessee brought an energy to open the second half that it lacked in the first half, opening with a 7-0 run that pulled the Vols within striking distance. However, Tennessee never got closer than eight points.
A terrible first half. A good second half. An inconsistent performance from an inconsistent team.
“I wish I knew, you know? I wish I knew. If I did, we would fix it,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of the inconsistencies. “I don’t understand it, to be quite honest with you — as much time we spend with our guys talking about doing your job, playing your role night in and night out. … I wish I knew the answer to that, I really do. As much as time we spend talking about it, I wish we could figure it out.”
Barnes’ frustration comes off an impressive win over No. 1 Alabama. But the Tennessee team that we’ve seen for most of February showed up in Rupp Arena Saturday as the Vols lost their third straight road game and fourth game in six attempts.
Tennessee was shorthanded, down starters Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips. But the Vols were down both of those players when they beat Alabama Wednesday.
“We brought enough guys here to win this game,” Barnes said. “I believe that with our team and players, but that’s with everybody doing their job.”
The Vols’ inconsistencies start with their personnel. After scoring 33 points and being a major strength against Alabama, Tennessee’s frontcourt was putrid against Kentucky, totaling just 12 points.
Senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua is the prime example of Tennessee’s inconsistencies. After scoring 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting against Texas, Nkamhoua has averaged 8.5 points on 32% shooting from the field.
“There at the end of the game it looked like we were playing volleyball back-and-forth across the rim,” Barnes said. “Those plays you have to finish it.”
Tennessee’s backcourt, the strength of the team, suffers from much of the same inconsistencies but just has higher ceilings and floors.
Zeigler is perhaps the most consistent player, but spent much of the game on the bench in foul trouble and posted his third game this month shooting less than 30% from the field.
Senior Santiago Vescovi has had a streaky season shooting the basketball and his performance at Kentucky was a true microcosm of his season. Vescovi didn’t score in the first half before a brilliant second half saw him score 17 points on seven-of-10 shooting from the field.
More From RTI: Everything Rick Barnes Said After Loss At Kentucky
The most disappointing part of Tennessee’s issues at Kentucky was its lack of defensive intensity in the first half.
Tennessee’s defense is its calling card but for the third time this season, Volunteer players found themselves talking about the need to be locked in better on that end of the court.
“It’s definitely disappointing but it happens,” Mashack said. “Guys miss shots, your head goes down a little bit. It’s all out of just wanting to help your team win. I can understand that because it happens to me all the time. I think when we’re missing shots, we’re missing layups, we’re missing free throws, our head can go down a little bit. That’s the main thing we have to make sure of. Having a short-term memory when it comes to this game and trying to get it back on defense.”
Kentucky scored 39 first half points on 43% shooting from the field and three-point line. The Vols’ ability to force turnovers didn’t show up as Kentucky coughed it up just five times in the opening 20 minutes.
“Our mindset should be, if we’re not shooting well, they’re not going to shoot well,” Barnes said. ‘I thought tonight we allowed in the first half the offensive mind, we missed some shots and you could see it. We’re around our guys enough to know their body language and they let what was happening on the offensive end to filter over to the defensive side and that’s not who we normally are.”
As Tennessee stares down the final two weeks of the regular season, inconsistency is the most consistent part of the team.
The good news for the Vols is just about every team in the country is inconsistent. Tennessee has shown an ability to reel off wins, like it did at the Battle 4 Atlantis when it won three games in three days.
But Thanksgiving was a long time ago and Tennessee’s inconsistencies make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament unlikely.