Tennessee was riding high going into the Kentucky game last Saturday. The Vols were No. 1 in the country, had the longest winning streak in program history, and hadn’t really been challenged by an opposing team in a while. Sure, Kentucky was No. 5 at the time, but they seemed relatively beatable. It was a game that Tennessee needed to win to further cement itself as one of, if not the best team in the country.
The result of this game?
An unmitigated disaster. The Vols shot 41 percent from the field, 28 percent from 3-point range, and gave up nine turnovers. To make matters worse, they were physically bullied on both ends of the floor. They never really looked like the No. 1 team in the land on the way to an 86-69 loss.
So, going into the Vanderbilt game Tuesday, Rick Barnes and company were likely looking for a strong bounce back game against a struggling team at home. Vanderbilt hadn’t won a conference game all year, had a head coach that might be on the hot seat, and players that don’t really like him. Throw in that Thompson-Boling Arena hasn’t seen the men’s team lose since Jan. 2 of last year and this game had all the makings of a blowout.
The result of this game?
Eh, nothing reassuring. Definitely not a blowout. Sure, Tennessee won comfortably. But, it had its lowest scoring output of the season and showed a lot of the same offensive issues it had on Saturday. They shot 41 percent from the field, 28 percent from three point range, and gave up 11 turnovers. That’s not a typo. Tonight’s offensive stats are almost identical to those from the game on Saturday against Kentucky.
Sure, sure, Tennessee is back in the win column and it looked better defensively tonight than it did against Kentucky. But we aren’t at the point in the season where “a win is a win” or Tennessee should just “win at all costs” or whatever other cliche you can think of that applies. How they win is still important. And tonight wasn’t exactly the dominating performance that they needed to get back to being considered the No. 1 team in the country. If they want to get close to winning some hardware, Tennessee will need to find the turbo-efficient offense that led it to such great heights earlier this season. It was, after all, a top-five offensive unit in the country for a while.
To make matters worse, Tennessee is about to face its toughest five-game stretch of the season. Consecutive away games at LSU and Ole Miss, followed by games against Kentucky, Mississippi State, and at Auburn is a tough stretch for anybody. Certainly not the ideal time to be trying to get out of an offensive slump.
There is some good news, though. All of the pieces Tennessee had when they were No. 1 are still in place. Nobody is seriously injured, the key players are still 100 percent invested and Barnes is still in charge. Righting the ship will be difficult, but far from impossible. Consecutive bad games also shouldn’t cancel out an entire season of great basketball, either. Granted, these past two games haven’t been great. But we will get to see how Tennessee reacts to adversity in the coming weeks. Fortunately, the experience and leadership on the team is still very much present, as well. Grant Williams had a double-double, and Admiral Scholfield and Lamonte Turner contributed 12 points each. Kyle Alexander started to look a little more like himself, although his stat line doesn’t necessarily reflect that.
The moral of the story? The sky is not falling. Will Tennessee win all five of its last regular season games? It’s a long shot, but still very possible. There is still potential for this team to make a huge splash in the post-season. The regular season is far from over, too. These past two games are hopefully the wake up call that Tennessee probably didn’t know that it needed a week ago.
Buckle up, everybody. The next few months with this team could be wild.