The Barclays Center has parlayed itself into a magnificent boxing venue, not just a basketball arena. On Friday night, it hosted a heavyweight basketball match between the No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers and No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks.
The Jayhawks are a perennial powerhouse, while the Vols are learning how to deal with success and accolades. After their performance against Kansas, the Vols have proved their worth.
Sure, they made mistakes. There was poor shot selection throughout the game. Rebounding was selective in the second half and overtime. It didn’t help that Kansas had 34 attempts at the charity stripe. Yet, all of these hurdles equated to a 69-69 tie at the end of regulation. Pretty nice, right?
In all seriousness, this was an impressive outing for Tennessee. Vol fans are going to be upset with an underwhelming overtime that capped off the aforementioned negatives.
However, I am here to offer up some hope and confidence for a fanbase that is conditioned to brace for despair:
Grant Was Still Grant
Grant Williams continues to impress. Many thought the junior had reached his ceiling. He has proved otherwise this season. Williams had 18 points and eight rebounds against the best front he has seen this year. That didn’t stop him from producing what is now expected numbers. He also tied his career-high for assists with six.
The problem for the Vols is that they had to do without their best player for roughly the last minute and a half of regulation. The co-SEC Player of the Year is not just Tennessee’s best player, he is their best passer. The offense runs through him the majority of the time. Rick Barnes wants to work inside-out.
How much did the Vols value Williams in this game?
The forward either scored or assisted on six of the last eight possessions before fouling out. The only exceptions were a turnover by Williams on an attempted assist and an air-ball by Admiral Schofield on an inbound play, which proceeded a make-and-miss from a Williams free throw visit. Williams scored 10 points, including a three, during that span. He also managed to get Udoka Azubuike a proper exit by fouling him out on a heady rebound play.
It was clear who Barnes wanted to orchestrate his offense down the stretch. We will never know how the last 1:24 would have played out with Williams. The only possession Tennessee had during that stretch ended with a missed pull-up from Jordan Bone. Kansas had the other two possessions as Tennessee failed to get a rebound the last time the Jayhawks had a shot clock.
Bone Continues To Be Efficient
This game featured two of the fastest guards in the country with Tennessee’s Bone and Kansas’ Devin Dotson. Bone’s play has been efficient so far and that continued against one of the nation’s best teams. The junior from Nashville finished with 16 points and five rebounds. He also had five assists and one turnover.
This was his most impressive outing this season. He was the only Tennessee player to hit the 40-minute mark for playing time. His assist-to-turnover ratio now sits at 2.5:1. It’s climbing due to his efficiency against one of the only guards in America that can match his quickness.
Who knows where the Vols would be without Bone in the first half. He and fellow guard Lamonte Turner helped revitalize the Vols’ slump in the first half. Bone hit some big shots, including a three at the first half buzzer to put Tennessee up by two points.
Vols Withstood Droughts
The Vols not only had a first half slumber, they went cold in the second half, as well. Tennessee experienced a six-minute drought without scoring in the first half. Thanks to Bone and Turner, the Vols dug their way out of what could have been an insurmountable hole.
When Kansas denied Williams entry, the Vols looked sluggish and clueless at times. Thanks to terrific on-ball defense by Tennessee in the first half, Kansas wasn’t able to capitalize.
That’s when Bone and Turner arrived. Both made big shots from outside and leveled the chess match. If you would have told me that Tennessee would have gone without a field goal for over 11 minutes in this entire game, I would have predicted a loss by double-digits. Even though overtime didn’t replicate the first 40 minutes, it is quite an accomplishment to tie Kansas at the end of regulation considering the intermittent slumps.
Vols Made Kansas Uncomfortable
It’s Kansas versus Tennessee in basketball.
Casual basketball fans probably made fun of Tennessee for thinking they could hang with the blue bloods. Despite the loss, they actually can compete with the elite this year.
The Vols are one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The Jayhawks are one of the most talented. Kansas possesses some the most raw talent, while Tennessee is one of the most reliable teams.
For over a half, Tennessee was able contain Kansas’ ability to capitalize in transition and make shots. The Jayhawks’ transition game was non-existent in the first half. This was attributed to the Vols’ success on shot selection and rebounding. That changed in the second half when players started feeding off the Bone-and-Turner energy and started settling for outside shots.
Operating from outside is far from Tennessee’s offense. It is important to let the hot hands shoot, but putting up 3-point shots to the tune of 27 attempts is not advantageous for this Volunteer team. In fact, Barnes probably won’t sleep at night knowing Tennessee shot 25.9 percent from deep. The fact that the Vols put up 27 3-point shots might give him hives.
Despite the 3-point fetish, Tennessee managed to produce 41 2-point field goals in regulation. According to Ken Pomeroy, that is the most made against Kansas during this season.
I think coaches tend to underestimate how tough it is to avoid taking 3's against a defense that encourages it. And KU is forcing a lot of 3's so far. Besides, Vols' 41 2's in regulation were the most against KU this season, so not sure what more could be reasonably expected. https://t.co/XbcRM1J2Zs
— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) November 24, 2018
Yet, in all this tomfoolery, Tennessee stood toe-to-toe with the No. 2 team in the nation. Come next week, the Jayhawks might be the cream of the crop.
The fact is, both these teams are heavyweights. The Vols definitely belong. They may not be No. 1 over the course of the year, but they will show up to fight against anybody. Their consistency gives them an advantage against most teams. The faults they made on Friday might provide a teaching moment that could result in a trophy months from now.
If there is ever a precursor to a Final Four matchup, this was it. Don’t be surprised if these teams meet in March.