Tennessee kicked off their 2019-20 hoops campaign with a 78-63 victory over UNC Asheville on Tuesday night. The halftime deficit was only eight points after the Bulldogs put together a nice run in the final minute of the first half. Tennessee was clearly the more talented team, but at times the Bulldogs and Vols looked like they were evenly matched in everything but athleticism.
As usual with Rick Barnes coached teams, team defense was clearly the mantra going into this match-up. UT supplied a heaping of pressure perimeter defense as well as blocked shots, but the game tape raises question marks. Tennessee is devoid of a true center after Uros Plavsic’s transfer waiver was denied by the NCAA this week.
Forwards Yves Pons & John Fulkerson look to be Tennessee’s best inside options in terms of matching up with the opposing team’s big men. Which against a lower level team like UNC Asheville will fly, but with a meeting against Memphis and #1 overall recruit James Wiseman upcoming, that could spell trouble for the Vols. Fulkerson is a scrappy player who would thrive at the four spot. But if he’s asked to beat and bang with the fives, I really don’t know how he would fair. As for Pons, he is listed as a guard on most box scores I’ve come across. Asking him to fill that position may be unrealistic.
Seniors Lamonte Turner & Jordan Bowden will be the barometer for how far this team will go. Both will be relied upon to score at will and use their experience to keep Tennessee’s opponents on their heels. It was just the first game of the season, but at times UT had trouble scoring points consistently. Bowden seems to disappear into the crowd at times on offense. He finished last night with 10 points on 5/10 shooting. Admiral, Grant, and Kyle aren’t going to come walking out of the tunnel anytime soon. This team needs to find it’s identity and fast.
If I have one critique of Barnes’ system, it’s that at times it feels as if his Spurs style of basketball cripples some of the more talented offensive players by putting them in handcuffs. Vol Nation was absolutely ecstatic to add five star recruit Josiah-Jordan James to the mix after key departures in the offseason. Last night, he was given no individual opportunities to make himself comfortable in orange & white.
James is obviously a playmaker with a pass first mentality. He looks to be a true point guard who should be leading the break, making plays off the pick & roll, etc. Yet, for most of the night, the ball was taken out of his hands as he was forced to act as a cutter and screener. He finished the night with only two points while playing 25 minutes. Last night’s game was the perfect opportunity to let him loose against a lesser opponent and it seemed to be completely wasted. Lamonte shot 7/17 from the field while handling primary ball handling duties.
The most pleasant surprise for Tennessee was the emergence of Yves Pons. Pons has clearly been working hard to develop his game, and a different level of aggressiveness was displayed last night. Yves looked comfortable stepping out to the three point line and shooting in rhythm. He also displayed his shot blocking ability by meeting Asheville’s Jude at the rim roughly halfway through the first half for a blocked dunk. He even hit back to the basket fades at a high clip. If Pons can consistently play at his French National Team level, he could be a leader on this team.
It was just game one, but with the amount of talent residing in the SEC this season, the performance was enough to make me nervous. Offensively, the Vols don’t look to have an identity. Hopefully they’ll find one quickly or it could be a long season. Rick Barnes has a knack for banding a team together and this team will need that as they set out into their non-conference schedule.