Tough tests for Tennessee basketball teams today

Tough tests for Tennessee basketball teams today

December 9th, 2018 by Gene Henley in Sports - College

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes talks with guard Jordan Bone (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia Tech, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 66-53. (AP photo/Wade Payne)

Photo by Wade Payne

KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee basketball teams could use a litmus test to see where they stand.

This afternoon, each program has one.

The seventh-ranked Tennessee men are in Phoenix to face top-ranked Gonzaga in the Jerry Colangelo Classic, tipping off at 3 p.m. EST at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Two hours earlier, the ninth-ranked Lady Vols face 12th-ranked Texas in Austin.

Both Tennessee teams are coming off lackluster victories with things to fix. The Lady Vols (7-0) fell behind by 20 in the second half Wednesday in what was expected to be a virtual cakewalk against Stetson, a Women's National Invitation Tournament team last season that came to Knoxville with one win — over an NAIA program.

Tennessee rallied for a 65-55 victory but again displayed inconsistency and carelessness with the ball. The young team also had a second-half deficit against UAB before winning in overtime.

The Lady Vols can't rely on a big rally against the Longhorns.

"I thought against Oklahoma State we started with a bang and then we settled," coach Holly Warlick said. "So we just have to understand and maintain what we want at the beginning of the game, what sets we want and what defense we want. (We have to) make sure we do those. We will make adjustments, but the more pressure we get and the more tempo we get, the better we start off. We always want to make sure that we press you to get into our flow first."

One positive Wednesday was that the Lady Vols made 25 of 30 free throws in the win. They'd entered making 59 percent at the line.

"We need to get to the basket as much as we can, especially if our shots aren't falling from the 3-point line," sophomore guard Evina Westbrook said. "Free throws have been a key point from our coaches, so we have been getting extra free throws before practice and after practice and on the weekends. Everyone has been contributing any way they can."

Despite consecutive 28-point victories, the defensive performances have been less than stellar for the Tennessee men. The Vols (6-1) have faced two high-level opponents this season, and each was able to have some level of shooting success: Louisville knocked down 11 3s in a loss, and Kansas shot 50 percent from the field in its 87-81 overtime win.

Tennessee's on-the-ball defense has been a struggle, with opposing teams able to find gaps and dish out to open 3-point shooters. The Bulldogs are similar to Kansas in that they have five equally capable offensive weapons, and they use those to find open looks (96.4 points per game, 20.1 assists, 53 percent shooting).

The Vols had a chance to make a big national splash in the Kansas game, but coach Rick Barnes said he felt the team was "too emotional" early on, which hampered the performance.

Have they learned with another big game today? He thinks so.

"You'd like to think that as the season goes on," Barnes said this past week. "You'd like to think they're going to be able to do that. Yeah, I like to think that is going to happen. Every game, you learn some things. The last couple games, we played against teams that are pretty much putting their head down trying to drive the ball really hard. Smaller teams. We did a good job last game not really putting them on the foul line.

"But they are also really back in there (on defense). About as far back as you can do. When people are really trying to invite you into shooting an early shot, it's a tough shot. You know you are trying to get something else done, but yet they are making you go to maybe option two, three or four. And the last game, when we moved the ball and didn't let the ball stick, we are just so much better.

"The last game, too, we were putting them in some very, very long defensive possessions. When you do that, now you've got to come down and work hard on the offensive end. I do think we ran better the last couple games. I think the credit goes to Jordan Bone. I think he's really looking to push it.

"We are learning from each game. I think we are going to learn some different things. I think we are not as consistent as we need to be. I think any coach in the country would say that right now — that they've got a ways to go."

But being the only school in the country with both teams in the top 10 shows that while each feels like it has a ways to go, the state of each program is pretty good.

"We are very proud of our men's team; they are ranked very high," Westbrook said. "Coach Barnes has done a really good job with them, and they have worked hard for it. For us, we have also worked hard, but it doesn't stop there. We have to continue to work."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.