Crossroad is coming soon for Vol basketball

Marvin Westwestwords

Once upon a time, Indiana won all 32 games in a perfect basketball season. That was 1976. Bobby Knight actually smiled and stopped throwing things – for a short-short.

It was the seventh such success in college history. Perfect hasn’t happened since. It may never happen again. There are so many really good teams, home and home schedules and questionable whistles.

UConn is good right now but winning on the road isn’t easy, even in the once Big East.

Purdue is good. The big Boilermaker is a full-grown man.

Tennessee is not that good but on good days, it is competitive. That’s the story of these Volunteers. They have wonderful potential but sometimes it runs away and hides.

The defining period is fast approaching. It does not include Tuesday evening at Missouri. If the Tigers upend the Volunteers, all bets are off. A white flag would be more appropriate than the orange one.

Missouri is gritty but 0-12 against Southeastern Conference foes. If you are into comparisons of scores, the Tigers were much better at Texas A&M than were the Volunteers but they lost in Columbia by 24 to Mississippi State.

We know from experience that 0-12, even including the loss to Vanderbilt, does not guarantee a free pass for Tennessee. It will have to show up.

Far more challenging, more serious, is what remains of the schedule – the Aggies and Auburn at Food City Center, very risky trips to Alabama and South Carolina and the rematch with Kentucky in Knoxville.

Where the Vols are really going, which road they will take, where Tennessee ends up in the SEC race, is to be determined.

The preseason panel of elite media thought the Vols would win the league title. This is Rick Barnes’ most experienced team. With the emergence of Dalton Knecht, it looked like the most talented. The 2019 team of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield has since been restored to consideration.

I don’t think and never did that this Tennessee team is destined for the Final Four. It is not quite strong enough in the post. Jonas Aidoo has touch but can be pushed out of position. Tobe Awaka, a powerful man, is not a confident scorer. J.P. Estrella is a very promising future instead of a now.

Awaka is a rebounder at heart, a warrior. Alas, because he sometimes knocks people down and steps on them, officials think he is foul-prone. Aidoo is nimble and can catch the ball if it is within reach.

Some are disappointed in the fifth-year seniors. Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James have been two of my favorites. I thought “championship” when they chose one more season as Volunteers. Vescovi holds the record for most career starts and does an assortment of things to help win games. Both contributed Saturday night.

After three-fourths of the schedule, it seems strange that both are still trying to find where they fit as scorers in conjunction with Knecht. Indeed, Santi and JJJ are unselfish, perhaps to a fault.

On many occasions Zakai Zeigler has been the most exciting point guard in the colorful history of Tennessee basketball. Exciting is not the exact same as best but he is certainly in the group with Rodney Woods, Jimmy England, Billy Hann, Johnny Darden and C.J. Watson.

Ziggy doesn’t lose many turnovers. He didn’t have any against Vandy. He is more disruptive on defense than some (most) of the past champs. He is worth the price of admission – well, at least half-price.

Jahmai Mashack is a very determined defensive reserve. I am still trying to classify Jordan Gainey. He has rare athletic ability. He is sometimes outstanding, sometimes missing in action.

Barnes has said really good teams get better as they go along. In theory, 25 games, all those practices, hours of video study, lectures and illustrations pay significant dividends.

Best I can tell, these Volunteers are still looking for their giant leap forward. Maybe it will happen in the final two weeks. Or, maybe the Vols will peak at tournament time. That would be fun but it has not been the trademark of Barnes’ coaching career.

As I recall, Tennessee triumphs over Alabama (91-71) and Kentucky (103-92) were January and February (so far) landmarks. On both occasions, the Vols might have beaten any team in the country.

The defense was very good against Alabama. The Tide committed 22 turnovers. Knecht scored 25, his fourth consecutive “big game.” Aidoo added 19 with nine hits in 14 tries. A good time was had by all in orange.

Tennessee’s 103 in Rupp Arena tested the patience of Wildcat faithful. Some wanted to fire coach John Calipari on the spot. Ziggy stunned the usually noisy crowd with 26 points and 13 assists. He missed just three shots.

JJJ also scored 26. All concerned were amazed. Calipari believed the pregame headlines, that Knecht was the big gun. He is – but there are others.

Those two resounding victories by the same team that lost at home to the Gamecocks illustrate Barnes’ all-season complaint: Inconsistency. The coach really isn’t sure what he will get from game to game.

He never says there is a lack of effort. What might be sometimes missing is keen attention to detail. Call it focus.

What happens next? The answer seems simple: Fix it or forget it. Really big dreams hang in the balance.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


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