No. 9 Vols have a ball with small-ball look in routing LSU

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior forward Josiah-Jordan James passes past LSU’s Adam Miller during Saturday afternoon’s 77-56 victory by the No. 9 Volunteers. James scored a season-high 22 points.

Tennessee's smallest lineup of the season produced positive results Saturday afternoon at LSU, as the No. 9 Volunteers cruised to a 77-56 victory.

Senior guard Josiah-Jordan James scored a season-high 22 points and sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler added 12 points and 10 assists in the rare Baton Rouge stroll. The Vols had lost four straight meetings at LSU, last winning in 2015 during Donnie Tyndall's one season at the helm.

Current Vols coach Rick Barnes went with James, Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi, Julian Phillips and Olivier Nkamhoua as his starting five for the first time.

"I like that lineup a lot, because a lot of teams struggle to guard us," Zeigler said on a Zoom call after the Vols improved to 16-3 overall and 6-1 in Southeastern Conference play. "It's hard for teams to find matches with us, because everybody out there for us are really good defenders, and there is no let up on that defensive end. It really boosts us on the offensive end.

"We just give teams a lot more that they can handle when we go with that small-ball lineup."

Tennessee 7-foot-1 senior forward Uros Plavsic missed Saturday's game due to an illness, but Barnes said afterward that the change was made late in the week to go smaller. Plavsic, Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka combined for 46 minutes in last Saturday's 63-56 loss to Kentucky and for 48 minutes in Tuesday night's 70-59 win at Mississippi State.

Aidoo and Awaka combined for 32 minutes against the Tigers, with Aidoo amassing eight points and seven rebounds in his 20 minutes.

"Early in the game, I didn't think we had any physical presence inside the way we need it," Barnes said. "Even with that lineup, we should still be able to have that, but we certainly have guys who can shoot the ball at all five positions."

A Justice Williams 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game gave LSU a 7-6 lead, but the Vols scored the next nine points for a 15-7 advantage. Zeigler had a layup and a 3-pointer in the surge that put Tennessee ahead to stay.

LSU did climb back within 16-13 on a KJ Williams layup at the 8:25 mark of the first half, but Tennessee closed on a 23-9 run for a commanding 39-22 lead at intermission. Vescovi, Phillips, James and Tyreke Key had 3-pointers in that decisive stretch, and the Vols wound up shooting 42.1% from long range (8-of-19) in the first 20 minutes.

James finished 9-of-16 from the floor, which included a 4-of-6 clip from 3-point range. His 31 minutes followed his 34 minutes in Starkville, which transpired after a stretch when he had not played 20 minutes in any game since mid-November.

"My energy has been up, and my legs have been feeling good," James said. "Those shots today felt really good. I'm just doing what the coaches need from me. They want me to come out aggressive, and my teammates want me to come out aggressive.

"I feel like that makes the game easier for other people to score."

Williams scored 16 to lead LSU, which dropped to 12-7 overall and 1-6 in league play with its sixth straight loss. Tennessee tallied 33 points off 19 LSU turnovers, while the Tigers had just seven points off eight Vols turnovers.

The Vols led by as many as 27 in the second half, which briefly matched the margin of their 40-13 football victory in Baton Rouge this past October.

"I'm really proud of our guys, because we've got a bunch of guys under the weather right now," Barnes said. "Santi was not feeling good and did very little in practice yesterday. Julian wasn't feeling great. I've told our guys that we're a good basketball team right now but we've got to get better.

"The coaches have to get better, and the players have to get better, because there is a lot of basketball left. We can't stay pat with where we are right now."

Tennessee will next play Wednesday night at 7, when Georgia visits in a pairing televised by the SEC Network.

'GameDay' visiting

ESPN announced Saturday morning that its "College GameDay" show with Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, LaPhonso Ellis and Seth Greenberg will originate next Saturday morning from 11 to noon inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Vols host Texas that night at 6 on ESPN in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

ESPN's football version of "College GameDay" aired outside Neyland Stadium this past season before wins over Florida and Alabama.

Contact David Paschall at