Photo By Ian Cox/ Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee basketball was dreadful in its, 67-54, loss at Florida Wednesday night. The loss is the Vols’ second in conference play and all but ends their hopes of earning a SEC regular season title as they fell two games behind Alabama with a more challenging schedule the rest of the way.
Losing to a Florida team on the outside of the bubble on the February 1 isn’t a reason to panic. Tennessee will play 10-plus games before it opens play at the NCAA Tournament with plenty of chances to flush this stinker and ready itself for the stretch that will define the season.
It does, however, show that this Tennessee core’s limitations are there. Even when Tennessee is rolling over strong foes and looking like a Final Four caliber team, those limitations remain.
Those shortcomings were on display in Gainesville as Tennessee’s offense was pungent, missing 20-of-25 three-point attempts and assisting on just seven of 19 baskets.
“They’re going to work hard at trying to take away the perimeter, force us into the midrange with certain players and see if they can make those shots,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes described Florida’s defensive game plan. “As much as any game we’ve played, we’ve got to be connected on that end of the floor. … I just feel like we didn’t execute at all the way we wanted to on the offensive end.”
Scoring droughts have plagued this group of Tennessee players in past seasons, but the Vols have significantly limited them this year. In fact, Tennessee ranks below the national average for scoring droughts.
More From RTI: Everything Rick Barnes Said Following Loss At Florida
But against Florida they came early and often. Tennessee had three droughts over four minutes, nearly half as many as they had on the season entering the matchup. That’s why Tennessee’s performance against Florida isn’t cause to panic. This team has mitigated that problem and one poor performance doesn’t dictate an entire season.
But where does Tennessee turn when those droughts do occur?
“Consistency. We need some guys to be aggressive and do what we’ve asked them to do, in terms of taking the ball to the basket,” Barnes said. “Our post guys inside, we need to get a consistent scorer down there.”
Tennessee’s answer is simple. Score at the basket. But with who?
Barnes hasn’t found consistency from his veteran big men in their four-year careers and Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka don’t seem capable of making that jump this season. Zakai Zeigler can get to the basket better than anyone on Tennessee’s roster but his size limits his finishing ability, especially against elite rim defenders like Florida’s Colin Castleton.
“Castleton just stands back there,” Barnes said. “He is a one-man zone at the rim.”
Maybe freshman Julian Phillips is the answer. The five-star freshman has the ability to get to the rim and score but, like the rest of his teammates, there’s little consistency.
Tennessee’s two senior leaders — Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi — score the vast majority of their points on jump shots and that makes it’s challenging to completely avoid these types of offensive letdowns.
Between Zakai Zeigler and Julian Phillips attacking the basket, Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua scoring on post ups and its improved transition game, Tennessee has more offensive answers when they struggle to shoot then years past. The numbers bear that out, but none of those options are consistent.
There will come a game in the NCAA Tournament where Tennessee’s shooting will falter and indicate a scoring total in the 50s. The Vols have options for when it happens. More than they’ve had in recent years. But will those options be true answers? Time will tell as the Vols search for more of them in the six weeks until that time comes.
“We just, again, we’ve got to get better offensively,” Barnes mused.