What a strange team is Tennessee.
Sometimes, the Vols seem to be in a trance. Other times, they are terrific. Rick Barnes speaks often of consistency. There is none. But wait, there might be.
Last night, in the first half against Florida, the Vols wandered around as if in the wilderness. Five of them were on the floor, more or less where they were supposed to be, for more than five minutes without taking a shot. It is not uncommon for teams to miss shots. It is abnormal not to try one.
Tennessee started the game as if it was already won. The short-handed Gators had far more energy. The Vols found a way to fall behind by 13. It went like this: inattention turnover, bad pass, reach-in foul, charge, fumble, five-second violation, dribble into double-team, another foul and technical fouls, on Uros Plavsic and Santiago Vescovi.
Officials told Barnes his players were talking too much.
The Vols committed 12 turnovers that cost 17 points. There was a 15-0 Gator run. The visitors led 42-34 at intermission.
We don’t know what Barnes said at intermission but it must have been inspirational – maybe “You can do much better than that.”
They did. They won, 78-71.
Alas, even the ending was strange. A Gator supposedly said something derogatory about Zakai Zeigler being too small. Plavsic, big man who takes his role as the new sheriff in town very seriously, gave the visitors some sound advice. Unpleasantness erupted.
Gators guard Tyree Appleby made a run toward somebody near the Tennessee bench. He was restrained. Olivier Nkamhoua waved the Florida players in the general direction of Florida. Justin Powell got between Plavsic and more trouble. Barnes spoke sternly.
Other Vols entertained the visitors with the infamous Gator chomp. No one was injured.
Barnes didn’t like it. He wants the Vols to compete fiercely on the court and within the rules. He thought the game was very physical. It was. He thought “chirping” in the hand-shake line wasn’t all that classy. It wasn’t.
Vescovi is wise beyond his years. He’s been around. He likes the disposition Tennessee has acquired.
“I think this attitude is helping us a lot. It’s put a target on our back. Teams will know that we always have this attitude, so they have to come prepared.
“But I think it spikes us even better, like it gets us to a point where we’re focused. If we can put all that energy into winning the basketball game, I think it’s going to help us even more.”
The coach recognized that the guards took over the game. Vescovi was outstanding. He hit five of eight three-point tries and an assortment of clutch free throws for 23 points.
Kennedy Chandler misfired often from the floor but hit all six free throws (for a change) and finished with 17 points. Zeigler hit three of five long shots and one of two shorter ones, outhustled big boys for six rebounds and – give this special attention – blocked a shot.
Plavsic, a star against LSU, was mostly ornamental against the Gators. He went scoreless and got one rebound. He did play defense. John Fulkerson was considerably better.
“Fulky stepped up,” said Barnes.
Josiah-Jordan James had nine points and nine rebounds. Tennessee won the backboard battle by 10. The Gators played without two of their best post players.
Next up: It’ll be old home weekend for Barnes as the Vols go to Texas for the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. Barnes coached the Longhorns for 17 years. His teams made it to the NCAA tournament 16 times.
The coach said that was then, this is now.
“I am seven years removed from Texas. He said he still has some great friends in Austin but he’s all Vol.
“Many times I have been reminded that Tennessee is the real UT, that there wouldn’t be a Texas without the Volunteers.”
Saturday will be special. It is a grandson’s birthday.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org