KNOXVILLE — Last week's news that senior guard Lamonte Turner would be stepping away from the Tennessee men's basketball team to have season-ending shoulder surgery shook everyone in and around the program.
But life goes on, and the Volunteers (8-3) host Wisconsin (6-4) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the final tuneup before beginning Southeastern Conference play next weekend. There could be help on the way in the form of international guard Santiago Vescovi, who officially signed in late November and will be joining the program next week.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes noted Thursday that whether Vescovi plays this season will be contingent on the Vols' newest member.
There will be opportunities, though, especially now that the Vols have just eight scholarship players, with four of them freshmen. Barnes and his staff have the challenge of putting together combinations that could be effective in the meantime.
The loss of Turner hurts, however. He had played 369 of a possible 440 minutes and had accounted for 18% of the team's scoring and 45% of its assists this season. A look at all of the lineup combinations shows just how vital he was to the team's success: Tennessee's top eight lineups as far as minutes played together all feature Turner; four of the top five lineups in plus-minus (which measures how good a unit is together) also feature him.
That has to be replaced.
Here are a few observations about potential lineups going forward and how much they've worked together:
1. Steady Gaines: Vols coaches seem to have fallen in love recently with a lineup that features talented 6-foot-7 freshman Davonte Gaines along with senior guard Jordan Bowden, freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James and junior forwards John Fulkerson and Yves Pons. The group has played together in four games and has a plus-minus of plus-13, which was the second-best ratio of any quintet.
Barnes said Thursday that Turner not being available at all this past summer has helped that unit be successful.
"I think the fact, all those guys, you go back — I really felt like this after our last game — we played like all the things we worked on in the spring, summer, fall leading up to the season, was our best overall game in terms of us doing the things we had spent a lot of time on in practice," Barnes said. "So I thought those guys got comfortable with it.
"Again, we've had young teams before, and it's going to be a great learning experience as we continue to move forward. But these guys have already learned a lot. They're capable. But nothing we've talked about this year from our team goals have changed. We just feel like, hey, everybody is going to have to do a little bit more."
What makes this unit so intriguing is its length defensively. Fulkerson is the anchor in the back. Pons is the athletic freak who ranks second in the SEC at 2.5 blocked shots per game. Throw in Bowden's defensive ability and the length and versatility of Gaines and James and you have a talented group.
Offensively, more will be asked of James and Gaines to create off the dribble, which could free Bowden off curl screens, dump-downs inside to Fulkerson and passes out to Pons, who is shooting 33% from 3-point range.
2. Needing Jalen Johnson: Either junior Jalen Johnson or Gaines will receive the lion's share of minutes in the wake of Turner leaving. At his peak, Johnson is probably the best shooter on the team, but he has struggled as of late making shots and defending at the level that Barnes would like, which has hindered his playing time. But now he's needed, as it's all hands on deck going forward.
Tennessee has not been good with Johnson and the four other starters, although the coaches have given that lineup a shot, having played in seven games together. Johnson finding his confidence will help, as now he's not simply an option off the bench — he's a necessity.
3. Trial-and-error time: The Vols will go into Saturday's game against the Badgers with three practices together as they are currently constructed. There could be lineups Saturday and going forward that the team has not yet used: Maybe the Vols go with a big look of Fulkerson, James, Gaines, Pons and either forward Olivier Nkamhoua or Drew Pember. Maybe Johnson will earn time alongside Gaines, Bowden, Pons and Nkamhoua. Who knows? But the coaches have had a week to figure out what things are going to look like without Turner.
It's time to see what they come up with.