The No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers returned to Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night after spending 15 days away from their home court. Thanks to a change in lineup, the Vols avoided any Thanksgiving hangover.
Yves Pons made his first career start and didn’t waste any time making his mark. He finished with 10 points, five rebounds and two blocks.
Before either team scored, Kyle Alexander attempted to get Tennessee off on the right foot. He failed to make a layup and then proceeded to miss tipping the ball in twice. What followed more resembled volleyball than basketball between he and the Eastern Kentucky opponents.
Pons wasn’t having it.
The sophomore from France swooped in like a hawk snatching its prey. The sequence after that play resulted in Pons’ first 3-point field goal of the year.
The rest of the Vols still struggled to see their shots fall in the opening minutes. With the exception of Pons, Tennessee missed its first six field goal attempts. After a tough loss filled with poor shot selection, the one thing Tennessee needed the most was to get buckets and win comfortably.
Thanks to the French Connection, they eventually found rhythm.
The first two shots Pons made were 3-point attempts, but it was his energy and highlight-reel plays that sparked the fire that the Vols needed. The freakish athlete made devastating blocks and rim-shattering dunks. All of a sudden, the Vols played with swagger and intensity.
Everyone knew the Vols were at no risk to lose to the Colonels of the Ohio Valley Conference. The concern was how they would respond after a tough loss in the NIT Tip-Off Championship Game to No. 2 Kansas. Couple that with a surprise start from Pons, and suddenly the game is intriguing.
It’s such a surprise because Rick Barnes has gone with his tried-and-true lineup to start games for so long. Jordan Bowden was the one constant getting replaced. The junior has struggled the past few games. He came into the contest shooting a shade under 38 percent from the field.
What Bowden brings to the table is sharp 3-point shooting. While he was shooting an impressive 43.8 percent from behind the arc, he entered Wednesday 1-of-6 from downtown in the past three games. His woes continued from distance against the Colonels as he shot 1-of-5 from 3-point range. He finished with seven points.
The question is now whether or not Barnes will treat this as an experiment or a trial. While Pons is still unpolished, the useful attributes he does posses are hard to ignore. His impact on the defensive end might give him the edge over Bowden. As much as the local product has struggled with his shot, his play on the defensive end has been suspect.
The Vols are good enough to overcome a decision involving Bowden and Pons’ position in the starting lineup. With more contribution from The Freak of France like they had Wednesday night, it won’t be a question come January.