What is happening with Tennessee basketball?

Marvin Westwestwords

As I and others have said, I am very fortunate, highly favored, richly blessed. I know a little something about beautiful basketball.


I’ve seen several players and quite a few games and talked with some famous coaches.

I didn’t play very well. As a senior, in my peak athletic year, 1951, I wasn’t good enough to help the Powell High varsity. The coach didn’t want me cluttering up the B team. He appointed me head coach and CEO of the eighth-graders. We went undefeated. Two fathers asked the principal why I wasn’t directing the big team.

I’ve seen most of Tennessee’s greats, going back to Ed Wiener and Carl Widseth and Gene Tormohlen and A.W. Davis and Ron Widby and Tom Boerwinkle and Bill Justus and Jimmy England and Reggie Johnson and Dale Ellis and Chris Lofton.

Other than getting stuffed into a cold shower by a celebrating team, I suppose the most fun was watching third star Mike Jackson average 16.7 points while the world was watching the Ernie and Bernie Show.

I rarely missed practice and skipped only three games during the Ray Mears era. Ray and Stu Aberdeen and Sid Hatfield and Gerald Oliver were very instructive.

An even better mentor was Dick Campbell at Carson-Newman College. It became a ritual to see the Eagles play, go to Campbell’s home for post-game coffee and pastry and be mesmerized by his recall, diagrams and explanation of seemingly every play.

In other times, it was meaningful to be up close and see Jerry West and Pistol Pete and the Kentucky greats and try to analyze how they did it.

Tom Siler sent me to report on a flock of Final Fours – including Larry Bird versus Magic. I found that John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Al McGuire and many other coaches were surprisingly patient if questions were good enough. John Thompson and Bobby Knight? Not so much.

Uncle Adolph actually seemed to enjoy visiting with “that writer from Tennessee.”

Very fortunate, highly favored, richly blessed.

All that plus Bruce Pearl is offered as background to tell you that Tennessee basketball is at the mid-point of 2019-2020 and even the know-a-lots still have no idea what is happening.

Rick Barnes believes defense wins games. Others have figured out on our own that, generally speaking, shooters are relevant.

Officials affect outcomes. Some do more whistling than others and get some of the block-charge calls correct.

Rick Barnes speaks often about offensive execution. This is sacred stuff. Alas, some opponents just won’t allow a smooth flow.

Strange how marksmen are sometimes on target and sometimes misfire badly. I do believe who is guarding whom is a factor. South Carolina was very aggressive. The Gamecocks played defense as if they were warming up for a bare-knuckles barroom brawl.

That isn’t enough to explain how Tennessee could hit just 25 per cent and how Jordan Bowden could miss 16 of 17. The very special senior is hitting 33.5 per cent for the season. It may be an unfair comparison but Ellis and King hit 59 per cent for their careers.

Where all this uncertainty leads is yet to be determined. The schedule is almost always back-loaded. The second half calls for home and away against Kentucky and Auburn and several other challenges that could go either way.

If you attach any value to comparative scores, consider the hazards linked to the Wednesday game at Georgia. The Volunteers lost badly to Memphis in Knoxville. The Bulldogs beat Memphis in Memphis. Undefeated Auburn dismantled Georgia.

Tom Crean’s team won just two SEC games last year. He added some firepower, 6-5 Anthony Edwards, the potential No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. The top-ranked prep prize in the country choosing Georgia (instead of Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina) says anything is possible in this day and time.

Stretching that point just a little, some degree of anything is still possible for Tennessee. John Fulkerson may continue to make unlikely plays. Josiah-Jordan James may become an all-SEC freshman. Santiago Vescovi might prove to be an actual point guard if he can adapt to the pace and physicality of this league.

Already he has done some very exciting things – while going for a world record in turnovers. He is not adept at creating his own shot but he is very accurate when he gets the ball in open spaces. He sees the court and unselfishly looks to feed teammates but is much better with at least one foot on the floor instead of flying around.

Yves Pons is a puzzle. He is a terrific athlete, a great leaper and strong enough to play defense against anybody. He is much improved over previous seasons but is still learning to be a scorer. He went 0-for-7 against South Carolina.

A few days ago, Barnes said, “I still think we have a chance to be a good basketball team but we don’t have a lot of room for error.”

The small-miracle, one-point triumph over the Gamecocks was not very reassuring.

The Vols need to win two on the road this week but the true test comes in February. Speaking of truth, I don’t know if the Vols will pass or fail. I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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