When Tennessee fell below expectations during the season, we said basketball is a tournament game.
Rick Barnes’ history argues with that concept but that’s what remains, a chance to make an impact in the SEC tournament and the hope for a favorable draw in the main event.
The Vols will play Thursday afternoon in Nashville against the survivor of South Carolina versus Ole Miss. They play in the opening round on Wednesday.
There was a time during this 22-9 and 11-7 Tennessee campaign when I thought the Volunteers were better than their record. I now think they endured an unfair number of injuries and ailments, lost the close ones and had a February to forget. Some will say the team regressed.
At Auburn, it just plain got beat in the final five minutes. The Vols missed their last six shots. They even had breakdowns on defense in clutch situations.
Auburn won, 79-70. Tennessee has lost five consecutive road games. Tiger guard Wendell Green scored 24. He was too quick for those who tried to guard him. He hit free throws when they mattered most.
Santiago Vescovi did his best to carry the Vols. He scored 21. He hit five of nine three-point shots, got five rebounds, had four assists and missed but one minute of combat.
Tyreke Key, back after two games out with an ankle injury, scored 13. Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips had 10 each. Tobe Awaka, a warrior, grabbed 10 rebounds. Not incidentally, Olivier Nkamhoua scored seven in the first half and was scoreless after intermission. His play time was reduced.
“Rebounding. He’s got to rebound and defend,” said Barnes.
Olivier is 6-9. He got one rebound
“That’s the biggest thing he’s got to do and we know he wants to do it. It’s got to be his mindset.”
Generally speaking, Tennessee’s big guys weren’t much help. In the previous game, against Arkansas, Nkamhoua, Awaka, Jonas Aidoo and Uros Plavsic combined to go 16-for-23 (70%) from the floor and score 35. They combined for 14 against Auburn.
The Tigers (20-11, 10-8) had more than Green. Their big guy, Johni Broome, scored 17 points and claimed seven rebounds. Allen Flanagan finished with 16 points and Jaylin Williams had 13.
The game ended late. Tennessee was ahead at halftime. Tennessee was ahead after a Vescovi jumper with 6:13 remaining but didn’t hit another field goal. It made seven free throws.
No field goals for six minutes?
“Execution,” said Barnes. “Again, I thought we over dribbled. I thought we stood around. We were, we always were all year long, so much better when we’re moving and cutting and getting the ball moving as opposed to isolations.”
Barnes is old-fashioned. He thinks his team has to get something out of each possession.
The Vols again had free-throw problems. They missed seven officially and didn’t get to shoot the second half of two one-and-ones. Phillips hit six of six and Key four of four.
Tennessee most missed Zakai Zeigler on defense. Green was an example. Zeigler really helped shut him down in the first meeting. He was just 2-of-11. This time he was 8-for-14.
Ziggy did not allow his bad knee to take him out of the show. He rode an electric scooter and appeared between ESPN announcers for prime interview time.
Vescovi did all he could to fill the void on the floor.
“I thought he played as hard as you can possibly play,” said Barnes. “We just had way, way, way too many defensive breakdowns in areas that we haven’t in a long time.”
The coach said he expected the game to come down to the last couple of minutes.
“We had too many turnovers coming down the stretch, where you know you’ve got to get a shot. Overall, we’ve got enough guys that can handle the ball and do what we need to do. You’ll always miss a guy like Zakai, but that’s not why we lost the game.”
Turnovers? Tennessee had 11. Auburn cashed them in for 21 points. Auburn had six. The Vols got four points off those mistakes. Tennessee won the rebound battle. Auburn won in fast-break points, 15-0.
The coach was disturbed by second-half defensive mistakes, mental lapses. He said the Tigers got far too many dribble-penetration layups. Nobody stopped the ball. He said there was a problem not rebounding.
“Tobe did a great job, but deflections, we weren’t aggressive on the ball the way we needed to be. We normally get more deflections. It shows, we had no fast break points, tells you that we’re not aggressive enough. Because that’s where we need to get deflections and get out in the open court.
“There were a number of different things. We left the ball, just gave up too many easy baskets. In a game like this, this time of year, you can’t give up easy baskets. And we gave them too many good looks.”
The SEC tournament begins Wednesday for lower teams in the standings.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]