Vols' Rick Barnes admits 'there has been no rhythm' to this year's team

Southeastern Conference photo / Freshman guard Keon Johnson was responsible for six of Tennessee's 17 turnovers during Wednesday night's 70-58 win at Vanderbilt.

The South Carolina Gamecocks played just one men's basketball game in December due to COVID-19 limitations.

Texas A&M will go all February without playing because of continued coronavirus setbacks, so things certainly could be worse for Rick Barnes and his No. 25 Tennessee Volunteers. After all, the Vols may not be playing well - even Wednesday night's 70-58 triumph at Vanderbilt was accompanied by numerous warts - but at least they're playing.

"All I can say is I think this is a year where I don't know if any of us can use the word rhythm, because there has been no rhythm," Barnes said this week. "You just have to play good, consistent basketball, but we haven't done that, and I can tell you that our guys want to play consistent basketball. I know how badly John Fulkerson wants to play well. I know how badly Jaden (Springer), Keon (Johnson) and all of them want to sometimes.

"I can't put a finger on it, and they can't put a finger on it, because some guys are still learning. There is no question about that."

Tennessee improved to 16-6 overall and 9-6 in Southeastern Conference play with the win at Vanderbilt (6-13, 2-11), and there are plenty of advantageous objectives on the line when the Vols visit Auburn (11-13, 5-10) at noon Saturday (ESPN). The Vols are percentage points behind Florida for fourth in the league race, with the top four seeds at next month's SEC tournament guaranteed double-byes into the quarterfinal round.

The Vols have slipped to an NCAA tournament No. 6 seed in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection, so there is the chance to reverse that trend as well as remaining in The Associated Press Top 25.

"All that stuff is out there, but the bottom line is that if you want to play basketball, you want to win games," Barnes said. "Do you want easier routes through certain things like tournaments? Absolutely. I mean, anybody would want that, but through the years not all that has proven to be the same.

"You talk about that stuff sometimes to use it as a motivational piece, but the bottom line is that we've coached teams that weren't playing very well at the end of the year and went on to win a conference tournament."

Tennessee was clinging to a 56-52 lead over a Commodores team missing top players Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu before the Vols finally broke free with a 10-2 run. Turnovers are still plaguing the Vols, who committed 17 in Nashville and have gone 11 consecutive games with double-digit gaffes.

The Vols have committed at least 16 turnovers in six of those 11 contests.

"We just can't continue to turn the ball over at that kind of rate," Barnes said. "It's really frustrating, because they're uncalled for. It goes back to being locked in and not trying to do things all by yourself and playing together as a team. We just turned the ball over 17 times, and so many of those had nothing to do with their team."

Said redshirt junior guard Victor Bailey, who has averaged 22.7 points and has shot 61.5% from 3-point range the past three games: "If we're not turning the ball over, we're a good basketball team."

The top miscue culprit Wednesday night was Johnson, whose stat line contained six points and six turnovers.

"I think he's trying to do too much," Barnes said. "I think he's got to get back to playing to his strengths, and he's got to understand where his bread is buttered."

Florida game added

The SEC announced Thursday that Tennessee will host Florida on Sunday, March 7.

Before the contest was added, the Vols did not have a game between Saturday's trip to Auburn and the SEC tournament, which starts March 10 in Nashville. Tennessee will honor its seniors prior to the matchup against the Gators, who humbled the Vols 75-49 in Gainesville on Jan. 19.

Pons a finalist

The Atlanta Tipoff Club announced Thursday that Tennessee senior forward Yves Pons, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is among the 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award. Pons and Alabama senior forward Herb Jones are the only semifinalists from the SEC.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.