The No.1 Tennessee Volunteers rolled into College Station and made Texas A&M their latest victim on what appears to be a ruthless tour of conference opponents.
The Vols (20-1, 8-0 SEC) jumped out to a fast start, leading by as much as 19 in the first half. The Aggies (8-12, 1-7) gave a valiant effort, but were clearly overwhelmed. The dominant performance gave Tennessee its 20th win of the season and a program-best 16 consecutive victories. Here is what else we learned from the beatdown in Texas.
Admiral Schofield has been trying to revitalize himself during a massive shooting slump. He is 3 of his last 22 from 3-point range, dating back to the Alabama game. Schofield’s six-point performance in Nashville was also bizarre.
However, the past three games have shown how well Tennessee, along with Schofield, have adapted to this issue. The senior has put up 10 or more two-point attempts in three consecutive games, a first such streak this season. Prior to the South Carolina game, there was just one other instance in which he went over 10 attempts in a conference game.
Now that Schofield’s shot management has changed, he has been able to feast while operating closer to the basket. He was 7-of-10 within 15 feet of the basket against A&M, but missed all four of his attempts beyond that mark. Attacking closer to the rim has allowed Schofield to still impact the game by scoring. He finished with 14 points on 50 percent shooting Saturday night.
One of Tennessee’s greatest assets is depth. This is an experienced squad that keeps setting new standards as they dominate the competition.
The play of their top six players has been exceptional ever since Lamonte Turner resurfaced. It escalated even further when head coach Rick Barnes inserted Turner into the starting lineup.
If Saturday is any indication, Barnes is perfectly fine with shortening his bench and using a heavy dose of his six best players. The starting lineup plus Jordan Bowden accounted for 92.5 percent of the Vols’ minutes. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons played five minutes each. Fulkerson missed the only shot attempt he took. No other reserve had an attempt besides Bowden.
The struggles of Pons, Fulkerson and even Derrick Walker have been noted. It appears Barnes may be limiting their usage even further. Despite a healthy lead in both halves against the Aggies, Jalen Johnson and Walker combined for just five minutes. But this management might be what is best for Tennessee going forward. The Vols’ 93-point performance versus A&M was the second consecutive game in which they eclipsed 90 points.
Changing of the Guards
Since the return of Turner, Tennessee’s guard play has been exceptional. Jordan Bone continues the ascent to being the nation’s best point guard while Turner and Bowden wait for their opportunity to strike.
Bone had another stellar performance on Saturday night. The guard effectively managed the Vols deadly attack with 18 points and 10 assists while shooting a perfect 7-of-7 from the field. His two turnovers were the fewest since the goose egg he notched against Vanderbilt. Prior to his brilliant performance against the Commodores, Bone had a nine-game streak of two or less turnovers. The Nashville native is still on a quite a stretch, though. In SEC play, he has 56 assists to just 11 turnovers, good for an astounding 5/1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Turner has also been on a tear since the trip to Nashville. After failing to make a 3-point shot against Alabama, the junior has gone 11-of-22 from distance in the four games since. He also has just three turnovers in that same stretch. On Saturday, Turner finished with 19 points and seven assists on 8-of-13 shooting. His timely shooting mixed the ability to attack the rim on fast breaks has enhanced what is already a dangerous offense.
The reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year might anoint a fellow teammate with the same accolade at season’s end. While Turner’s return has been magnificent for Tennessee, the utilization of Bowden has been just as key. The Carter product struggled during the non-conference portion of the schedule, but is now playing the best basketball of his career while coming off the bench. Bowden is averaging 14.2 PPG while shooting 55.8 percent since the start of January. On Saturday, he chipped in 16 points and four assists.
Altogether, the guard trio combined for 53 points, 21 assists and just three turnovers against the Aggies. This half of the rotation is what makes Tennessee tick. Grant Williams will get his numbers regardless of the match. The reigning SEC Player of the Year had 22 points and 10 rebounds against A&M and is well on his way to claiming that title once again. Schofield’s shot will come back. In the mean time, these guards are thriving with their respective roles. Now that they are firing on all cylinders, it may be the best guard tandem in the country.
It seems the Vols have gone from winning to dominating while most of the conference is on standby. But no matter the opponent, Tennessee will continue to be targeted. As long as Barnes’ six-shooter is loaded, there is not an opponent that can stand up to that luxury. Tennessee’s best is simply better than anyone else’s.