Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
Injuries have been extremely prevalent for Tennessee basketball this season— more than any other season under coach Rick Barnes.
Tennessee got healthier Saturday night against South Carolina as senior forward Josiah-Jordan James returned to the lineup after his third stint of four missed games this season. But it wasn’t all good news for the Vols.
Julian Phillips did not make his return to the court as he battles a hip flexor and shooting guard Tyreke Key missed his second game of the season (first due to injury) with a right ankle injury.
We’ll start with the positive news that James returned. The senior wing told Barnes he was returning against the Gamecocks for however long he could play after Tennessee’s loss at Texas A&M.
However long proved to be 21 extremely productive minutes. James scored a game-high 18 points on seven-of-11 shooting from the field and four-of-seven shooting from three-point range.
“Today, he was terrific,” Barnes said postgame. “And his presence has such a major impact on our team because he’s been in so many big opportunities, big-game situations. I think his presence takes a lot of pressure off of guys. He gives his teammates a comfort. I thought when he came on the floor tonight in the first half he was obviously terrific. I thought he played with great poise and pace.”
James ankle, which he sprained grabbing a rebound in the final minute of Tennessee’s loss against Vanderbilt, isn’t fully healthy. The senior didn’t seem to have quite the athleticism he does when healthy and the elite wing rebounder only grabbed two boards against the Gamecocks.
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Still, James back in the lineup in any way gives Tennessee leadership and better spacing on the court.
“I felt like I was at a point where I could go out there,” James said postgame. “Obviously I’m not 100 percent, but I like I could contribute, whether that would just be giving some of the guards or some of the bigs some rest.”
While Phillips didn’t return against his home state school, there’s still optimism he will be back in the lineup soon. Barnes said the freshman “is trying to do what he has to do with it” but that the hip flexor is a “problem.”
Key’s absence due to a right ankle injury was a surprise not only to media but to the Tennessee program itself. The super senior went through Friday’s practice normally before trouble ensued Saturday.
“Tyreke’s deal, we didn’t know anything about it until right before game time,” Barnes said. “His ankle really blew up on him. He is not even sure why. He doesn’t know what happened with it.”
The vague details surrounding Key’s injury make it hard to project his status going forward. While he hasn’t been as effective a player as James or Phillips this season, he doubles as Tennessee’s backup point guard and is a perimeter shooting threat.
With Key sidelined, freshman B.J. Edwards scored two points in 10 minutes of action.
Tennessee returns to the court for Senior Night Tuesday against Arkansas. Tip-off from Thompson-Boling Arena is at 9 p.m. ET. ESPN2 is broadcasting the game.