Vols' Jaden Springer seeks early-season success: 'We showed a love for the game'

Auburn Athletics photo by Shanna Lockwood / Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer has a shot contested by Auburn's Jaylen Williams during Saturday afternoon's 77-72 win by the Tigers in Auburn Arena.

If the Tennessee Volunteers are to right the wrongs of their 2020-21 basketball season, they will have to do so in practice.

Saturday's surprising 77-72 loss at Auburn is being followed by an 11-day stretch in which the Vols will play just once. Tennessee does not have another game until next Sunday afternoon, when the Vols host Florida in a rescheduled matchup, and the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville from March 10-14 represents the next competition after that.

"I feel like it's the perfect time for us to get in the gym as a team, work on all the stuff that we need to fix and come together and just find a way to bounce back from all the stuff we've gone through so far this season," freshman guard Jaden Springer said. "We're not playing the way that anybody expected. We started out the season strong. We were playing defense hard. We were playing the game with energy, and we showed a love for the game.

"I feel like we've gotten away from that."

Tennessee has split its past 12 games after a 10-1 start, so the Vols entered this stretch with a 16-7 overall record and a 9-7 mark in SEC play. If LSU defeats visiting Vanderbilt on Tuesday and Florida topples visiting Missouri on Wednesday, LSU and Florida would join league champion Alabama and Arkansas with double byes into the SEC tournament quarterfinals.

That would relegate Tennessee, the preseason pick to win the SEC, to starting conference tournament play March 11.

"It's time for us to rebuild who we are and get ready for the tournament," freshman guard Keon Johnson said. "It's as simple as that. With the postseason coming up, there is no more room for error."

Time could be running out for Johnson and Springer in Knoxville, with a recent 2021 NBA mock draft on CBS projecting Johnson sixth overall to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Springer 14th to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Tennessee earlier this season climbed as high as No. 3 in the NET rankings, which are used as a tool by the NCAA tournament's selection committee, but the loss at Auburn saddled the Vols with a season-low rank of 22nd. Vols coach Rick Barnes was flustered by only Johnson, Springer and senior forward Yves Pons providing energy against Bruce Pearl's hobbled Tigers, and he knows these extra days have to be put to good use.

"We're going to have to," Barnes said. "It's really hard to talk about competitive fire when you don't feel like your whole team is bringing it. We've talked more about that than we have with any team we've coached since we've been at Tennessee. I don't understand the inconsistency, because there are enough guys who have played enough basketball right now.

"This week we all have to go back and take a good hard look - everybody in the program - and say, 'What I can do for this program to make it what it should be and what we expect from it?' We just really have to use this week to get better."

The inconsistent play of Pons and the continuing struggles of senior forward John Fulkerson, who had four points and four turnovers at Auburn, will result in Tennessee experimenting with the 6-foot-5 Johnson as an occasional post presence to somehow provide the Vols with more inside punch.

"I can assure you that we're going to work on that some more," Barnes said. "We've given these other guys enough time to do it. We have some things, and maybe this week will give us a chance to do some of that."

Said Johnson: "At the end of the day, you just want to win, so whatever Coach draws up or tells us to do - winning is the only outcome we want."

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