NASHVILLE — The Tennessee men's basketball team improved to 11-6 this season and 3-2 in Southeastern Conference play with Saturday's 66-45 win at Vanderbilt.
Here are three observations from the victory for the Volunteers, who return to competition with Tuesday's 9 p.m. home game against Ole Miss (9-8, 0-4) before visiting Kansas on Saturday as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge:
1. Defense leads the way (as needed): There are some reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Tennessee offense even this season, but as the Vols work to improve on that end of the court, their length can cause problems for opposing offenses in the meantime. Vanderbilt (8-9, 0-4) shot only 24%, and once the Vols secured a rebound, they were out and running. Without the requisite pieces for a consistent half-court offense, Tennessee must look for opportunities to get out in transition and score on fast breaks. Vanderbilt's ineptness shooting (the Commodores missed all 25 of their 3-point attempts, the first time they hadn't made one behind the arc since the shot was added at the start of the 1986-87 season, a span of 1,080 games) certainly aided Tennessee, but the Vols didn't present their hosts many opportunities, either.
2. Still looking for the right rotations: Late in the game, Tennessee assistants suggested coach Rick Barnes take some of the older guys out and put some of the younger ones in to get some experience. Barnes' response? "Look, I'm still trying to find a team that we can really feel good about in terms of what we're looking for." The Vols used 19 combinations against the Commodores, including going with the two-post look of John Fulkerson and Uros Plavsic for a 4-minute, 33-second stretch of the second half. These are things that are usually worked out in the nonconference schedule, but the Vols' roster shakeups over the past three weeks have put the team back at square one.
3. Go along for the ride: The second point is why there's really nothing anybody can do but settle in and see what happens the rest of the way. The roster changes as well as the relative youth, with six players in their first or second year of college out of 11 players currently on scholarship (counting junior Jacob Fleschman, who on Saturday was awarded a scholarship for the second semester), will mean the highs will be high and the lows will be low. Just look at Saturday, when the Vols scored their fewest points in a half this season (21), then followed by scoring their second-most points in a half this season (two points higher were their 47 in the second half against Murray State on Nov. 12). Those highs won't simply go game to game; they'll go half to half with this group of Vols. Obvious improvements are what's important, though, and that's been the case for individuals and the team.