KNOXVILLE — Tennessee has spent weeks evolving as a team while trying to get players comfortable in new roles on the basketball court.
Back to the drawing board.
Moments after the 21st-ranked Volunteers beat Jacksonville State 75-53 Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena, improving to 8-3 this season and giving coach Rick Barnes the 700th victory of his career, senior guard Lamonte Turner announced he will have season-ending surgery to repair what he called "thoracic outlet syndrome" in his left (nonshooting) shoulder.
Already lacking depth, Tennessee will go into its final nonconference game of 2019, next Saturday at home against Wisconsin, with just eight scholarship players — and half of them are freshmen. The Vols have struggled to acclimate, with those freshmen getting their first taste of Division I basketball and the players who returned from last season's 31-win team taking on much bigger roles than before.
For Turner, it was a different struggle. The 6-foot-2, 187-pounder from Floerence, Alabama, who finished his Tennessee career with 1,086 points and 347 assists after an eight-point, 11-assist performance against the Gamecocks (4-8), has been dealing with the injured shoulder for a couple of seasons. Multiple procedures failed to take him back to being the player he was before, with Turner shooting 31% from the field, 23% from 3-point range and 75% from the foul line this season, all career lows.
The player with two game-winning shots against Kentucky — including one to beat the Wildcats in the semifinals of the 2019 Southeastern Conference tournament — could no longer make shots at the same rate. So he and his parents made the decision Friday night that Saturday would be his last game, and he stepped on the court against Jacksonville State with a more carefree attitude, played 31 minutes and went 4-for-6 from the field.
He turned the ball over five times, but it didn't matter. The 11 assists were his third-most this season, but that didn't matter, either. He said he was there to "spread joy" to his teammates on the court before walking off of it, going back into the locker room and breaking down in tears, knowing it was over.
"I cried plenty of times thinking about it," Turner said. "I've cried plenty of times through this injury. It's extremely hard. It was the hardest thing I've ever dealt with in my life. It hurt my confidence, hurt the way I felt about anything. It affected every area of my life in a way. Basketball wasn't fun for a while, and it's tough to deal with stuff like that, especially when you don't know what's wrong with you and you're expected to compete at the highest level and be the player everyone saw you be before.
"It's been tough, and I couldn't have done it without the support of my teammates and last year's teammates. No one knew what was going on, and I've wondered if it was mental. I didn't know anything; we didn't know anything."
Now Barnes and his staff must try again to figure out who can play where and how much. Tennessee plans to add point guard Santiago Vescovi to the roster by the end of the month, but Barnes said Friday that it is "highly unlikely" he will be able to play this season.
It would be nice for the Vols if he could, though, especially after the exit of Turner, their primary point guard. Maybe senior Jordan Bowden takes over that role, but he's better off the ball. Josiah-Jordan James has been spending more time at point guard, and that will have to continue with the only other obvious option fellow freshman Davonte Gaines, an athletic 6-foot-7 swingman who has played the position before.
Adjusting seems to the theme of this season.
"They're playing roles they haven't been in," Barnes said. "Yves Pons made the switch to go back inside. We had to do that for this team. Those guys are all learning something. John Fulkerson realizing that we need him to score. Tonight he had 16 points, and we need that from him. In the past he's been pretty content to ride the wave and see what happens.
"We're still trying to find ourselves, but I love these guys and I love the fact that they want to be a good basketball team. But we do have guys learning new roles, young guys figuring out that this is a whole lot harder than they probably thought it was coming in. But I do see some progress on both sides with the older guys buying into their roles and the younger guys understanding the urgency of being able to play."
With 20 regular-season games to play — after Wisconsin's visit, LSU is at Tennessee for an SEC opener on Jan. 4 — the Vols have a lot to deal with to try to put together a competitive team.
Turner's situation — a sad one all around — has come to an abrupt end.
"It was a tough decision for me to make, but I have to do it for my health because if I don't, it could get worse," he said. "I got a shot in my chest and my muscles to try to fix it, but it didn't really help it, and this is the next step for me and I feel like it's best.
"I appreciate all the support over the last four to five years. It's tough for me, and I get emotional thinking about it and talking about it. I appreciate the love and support I have here."