KNOXVILLE — After every Tennessee men's basketball game this season, the Times Free Press will take a second look and offer three observations on the Volunteers' performance.
The Vols opened their 2019-20 schedule Tuesday night with a 78-63 home win over UNC Asheville. Lamonte Turner led Tennessee with 17 points and was one of four Vols who scored in double figures, and Tennessee shot 53% from the field in the win while limiting the Bulldogs to 38%.
1. More ball-handlers needed: UNC Asheville employed a full-court press early in an attempt to throw off Tennessee's offensive rhythm. It could have been first-game jitters, but too many times the younger players on the roster looked for the senior guards, Turner and Jordan Bowden, instead of becoming ball-handlers themselves. It's a small fix, but opposing teams are going to sense that weakness and defend to keep the ball out of the hands of Bowden and Turner if it's not addressed. Josiah-Jordan James and Olivier Nkamhoua, both freshmen, are among those who must become options to handle the ball even when not scoring — or otherwise it's going to be a frustrating season for the Vols.
2. Progress by Pons important: Going into his fifth season as coach of the Vols, Rick Barnes and his staff have been lauded for their ability to develop players. On Tuesday, the latest example was provided by junior Yves Pons and his improved shooting. A 3-pointer from the top of the key and a mid-range fadeaway jumper were among the shots he took against UNCA but would not have taken last season, when he made only seven 3s and had a number of dunks. His stat line Tuesday was pretty solid — 15 points, seven rebounds, three blocks — but the points were his most with the Vols, as were the eight field-goal attempts and six baskets made.
Barnes spoke about Pons after the game: "Yves has been a great worker. I can put him up there with anybody we've had since I've been in coaching. He's going to do everything he can to try to do it right, almost to a fault. He's pretty hard on himself — he's going to have to get over that as long as he makes good decisions. He's learning how to play a little bit different with his back to the basket, which he's capable of doing, but we like him to get the ball some and turn and drive because he's very explosive doing that and he's still learning how to fight for his space on the court. All through preseason if you go back through, we stat everything we do in practice and Yves has been our leading 3-point shooter. So when he shoots it, we feel good about it. We don't want him to drift out there all the time, but we know we can spread out and do some things. But Yves will definitely continue to get better because he doesn't want to disappoint anybody."
3. Defense to transition important: Due to the Vols' lack of size on the interior this season, they're going to have to find ways to score easy baskets in transition because players such as Nkamhoua, Pons and even Davonte Gaines and Jalen Johnson could be asked to play minutes at the "4" position. On a number of occasions Tuesday, defensive rebounds were followed by passes up in transition. There were a few turnovers off those passes and a few missed shots, but Barnes said recently the Vols won't be afraid to play with four — or even five — guards. If that's the case, they're going to have to find mismatches — and their quickness on the interior could be how that happens.