KNOXVILLE — The 17th-ranked Tennessee men's basketball team split a pair of Emerald Coast Classic games at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, falling 60-57 to Florida State in a semifinal Friday and defeating Virginia Commonwealth University 72-69 on Lamonte Turner's last-second 3-pointer in the four-team bracket's consolation final Saturday.
Now 6-1, the Volunteers are back at Thompson-Boling Arena for their next two games, hosting Florida A&M on Wednesday and Memphis on Dec. 14. They'll play three more times this month — at Cincinnati on Dec. 18 and against Jacksonville State on Dec. 21 and Wisconsin on Dec. 28 — before opening their Southeastern Conference schedule Jan. 4 against LSU.
Here are three observations from the past two games:
1. Really good bench minutes: Although Tennessee's substitutes didn't play a ton — the starters logged all but 72 of the team's combined minutes against the Seminoles and the Rams — they were effective when they did, and they gained experience, which is a necessity for the growth of a team that doesn't have many reliable options right now. Davonte Gaines averaged 14 minutes in the two games and was a positive player in each contest, as were Jalen Johnson and Olivier Nkamhoua. Johnson's minutes were extremely positive because he has been struggling with his shot but knocked down both of his attempts against VCU, including a 3-pointer, which has been his specialty. The Vols can't have their starters averaging 33 minutes per game this early in the schedule. If other players become more consistently reliable options and the Vols' depth improves, that will be a positive in more difficult games ahead.
2. Cutting Turner's usage: Tennessee still needs to develop a secondary ball-handler who can take some of the playmaking load off Turner, who has one of the highest usage rates in the country at 30.2% (meaning that's how often he is on the court with possession of the ball during a game). For reference, Jordan Bowden is second on the team at 22.9%. Turner has also struggled with his shot as he battles some lingering shoulder trouble. It appears freshman Josiah-Jordan James is slowly developing into that possible other ball-handler and perhaps new commitment Santiago Vescovi could be an option if he is able to enroll and made eligible to play this season. Turner's greatest trait is his shotmaking ability, evidenced by his winner against VCU as well as his career exploits, which include a pair of go-ahead shots to beat Kentucky. He needs room to be that player, which means relinquishing some of his playmaking responsibilities.
3. Living on 'D': When the Vols chose to defend, they weren't just effective; they were dominant. In the second half against Florida State and the first half against VCU, Tennessee limited the opponents to 24% shooting, which allowed the Vols to get back into the game against the Seminoles and to hold an 11-point lead on the Rams. Tennessee still has a long way to go on the other end of the court and will never get close to being the offensive team it was in 2018-19, but the length and quickness the Vols have — especially on the perimeter — will give them a chance to stay in every game this season.