Things didn’t go according to plan in Knoxville on Sunday afternoon. Tennessee collapsed down the stretch against the No. 7 North Carolina Tar Heels 78-73, bringing its record to 7-2 and possibly ending their run as a ranked team after just two weeks. What did we learn from a narrow loss to one of the nation’s best?
Vol Nation Answered Admiral Schofield’s Plea
In the week preceding the game, UT Athletics released a video in which junior forward Admiral Schofield asked the crowd to be loud and create chaos to help inspire the team. The fans responded in a big way. Despite the game taking place during winter break, students still packed the arena, stayed on their feet throughout the game, and made it hard to hear anything except their cheering. It’s hard to imagine the Vols staying as competitive as they did anywhere except Thompson-Boling Arena. It might’ve been inexperience, questionable coaching (more on that in a bit) or just plain bad luck that led to a lackluster second half for Tennessee. Whatever the reason, it was the crowd that picked up the slack for the home team and kept UNC at bay for as long as possible. Of course, in the end it’s about what happens on the court. And the Vols simply weren’t good enough to hold on to their victory.
The Tennessee Coaching Wasn’t Good Enough
Outside of rebounding struggles – UNC grabbed as many offensive rebounds as Tennessee did defensive – an inconsistent offense was the biggest reason for the loss. Some of the blame for that offense can be put on the players – the usually-reliable Schofield struggled with his shot, while Carolina’s size helped slow down the dominant Grant Williams. But at a certain point, the coaching staff needs to take at least a share of the blame. Head coach Rick Barnes stood on the sideline and watched as the offensive game plan repeatedly broke down to “let James Daniel dribble aimlessly and hope something good happens” in the second half. Rather than keeping the ball moving or even running plays for specific players, the Volunteer offense stagnated.
There are a few specific examples of head-scratching coaching moments on the offensive end in the second half. Late in the game, Tennessee took a timeout with the ball and just seconds left on the shot clock. The play resulted in a shot clock violation and a Volunteer turnover. A team coming out of a timeout should be aware of exactly how much time they have and should be running a play to get a shot off in that amount of time. That didn’t happen.
The last half-minute was a nightmare of mismanagement. The fact that Tennessee didn’t run a play for Williams with 30 seconds left down two is a travesty. That the team ran a play to get the ball him in the backcourt down four points with 15 seconds left is almost as bad – Williams is a great player, but he shouldn’t be the go-to option on his own side of the floor with just seconds to score twice.
Blaming Referees For a Loss is Silly
This isn’t a new phenomenon and certainly isn’t unique to the Tennessee fan base, but it’s just as tiresome as ever. The fans in Knoxville would have you believe that the Vols had never committed a single foul in their entire careers. By and large, the referees called a mostly even and fair game, as they usually do. A handful of calls might’ve gone the wrong way, but there were no egregious misses and Tennessee was not disproportionately affected by them, no matter what the crowd might think. Besides, there’s an easy way to ensure that a questionable call doesn’t affect the outcome: don’t put yourself in a position with such a small margin of error. That’s easier said than done, especially against the reigning national champions, but the Vols led most of the game despite shooting just over 37 percent from the field and allowing 20 offensive rebounds. Pull down a few more boards or run an actual offense on a handful of plays and the game goes the other way, leaving Tar Heel fans to overlook their own issues moan about uneven officiating.
Maybe the referees blew their whistles a few too many times or made a couple of mistakes that cost Tennessee an upset victory. But the more likely explanation is that the Vols shot themselves in the foot against a better, more experienced team.