Basketball season is not over

Marvin Westwestwords

Contrary to rumor, the Tennessee basketball season is not over.

Based on how the Volunteers played in the first half at Kentucky, the end may be near –but it isn’t here yet. The next assignment, at Texas A&M, does appear very threatening. Beware.

Tennessee has dropped to 9-5, tied for third in Southeastern Conference standings. It has lost four of the last six. That adds up to wasting the most defensive talent and defensive disposition of the Rick Barnes era – and maybe the most ever.

Meanwhile, the Aggies are 12-2, second in the league, best conference start in program history. They upset Missouri in Columbia while the Vols were losing to the Wildcats. The Aggies had a sloppy start, 13 turnovers in the first 14 minutes. Early carelessness hardly mattered, considering how the Aggies were defending and rebounding (41-23).

Guards dominated scoring. Wade Taylor IV is playing his best basketball. How he plays seems to translate to how the Aggies perform. Taylor has been outstanding (at least 18 points) during the five-game winning streak. He shot 53.6% (15 of 28) from 3-point range.

Texas A&M had an interesting post-game chant: “Romp, rinse and repeat on Tuesday.”

Where are you, Jahmai Mashack? He might have something to say about that.

The sophomore was Tennessee’s most consistent performer at Kentucky. He played a record (for him) 34 minutes. He hit seven of 12 field-goal attempts. He scored a career-high 16 points. He had eight rebounds. He gave great effort on defense.

He thought energy was the missing link in the first half against the Wildcats.

“There are a lot of great defensive teams in college basketball, including us,” he said, “but what separates us is our energy playing defense. Energy unlocks everything else – rebounding, offense, transition, post-ups, layups, free throws.”

Energy is on Barnes’ list of inconsistencies. He lacks an explanation.

“I don’t understand it, to be quite honest with you. When you’re coming back, emotion starts to kick in. You still have to make smart plays … Kentucky gave us chances, they did. They opened the door for us.”

Capable? Yes. Uneven results? Yes. What we see from time to time is a waste of a historically great defense. I expect the Vols to try very hard at College Station.

The Aggies at Auburn have been my measuring stick of this surprising team. They grabbed a big first-half lead and won, 79-63, to end the nation’s longest home winning streak at 28.

“Texas A&M is a really good team,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “A veteran, talented, physical team. They outplayed us.”

Texas A&M’s trap bothered Auburn, leading to eight steals and 13 Tiger turnovers.

“We worked on it all week. We knew what they would do. We turned it over too many times and weren’t able to get out of those traps. It was unfortunate that our guards weren’t able to handle the double teams.”

The Aggies hit six 3-pointers in the first half. Fair warning.

Pearl likes Taylor. He likes Tyrece Radford better.

“They played great. You’ve got to give them credit. We had a hard time staying in front of them.”

Radford scored 16 in the first half, 14 in the second. He had nine rebounds. “He’s a great player, great athlete,” Pearl said. “One of the best in the country. Big, strong and physical.”

Maybe Ziggy can guard him without fouling out.

Barnes has been trying to get Zakai Za’Miek Zeigler to play smarter when pressuring people with the ball, especially in the backcourt. Zeigler’s defense is an important part of what the Volunteers do but too much in the wrong place turns a positive into a negative.

No way the coach seeks to smother effort or aggressiveness. He just wants Ziggy to think. Unnecessary fouls kept him in all-afternoon trouble against Kentucky. The Vols need him to run the offense. He can’t do it from the bench.

Zeigler had eight points, three assists and three turnovers.

Free-throwing was deadly against the Wildcats. Barnes fretted.

“You can’t miss free throws, that many free throws, like we do in those situations. I think with one-and-ones, I think we ended up 4-for-18.”

The Vols were 11-of-19 on layups and dunks.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected].

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