Inconsistencies in recent weeks have prevented Tennessee from hanging with the likes of Gonzaga and Baylor atop the college basketball world, but the Volunteers displayed Saturday night inside Thompson-Boling Arena why they still have the potential for a March run to remember.
Adding stellar 3-point shooting and aggressive rebounding to their typical defensive prowess, the No. 18 Vols routed No. 15 Kansas 80-61 for a much-needed statement victory that capped the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Tennessee's resounding win gave the Southeastern Conference a 5-4 victory in this year's extravaganza, which had to be reduced from 10 to nine games when Kentucky, which was scheduled to face Texas, announced Friday it would pause team activities due to COVID-19.
The Vols (12-3) led the Jayhawks (11-6) in the event's headline act by as much as 26 points in the second half.
"We really got back to our standard," Tennessee sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James said. "We just started playing hard, and everything else took care of itself. Shots were falling, and it was definitely a great shooting night for us.
"It brings us a lot of confidence, but we've got to keep moving forward."
Tennessee was 8-of-13 on 3-point attempts, a 61.5% clip that was in sharp contrast to the dismal 27.5% success rate from long range (22-of-80) in recent outings against Vanderbilt, Florida, Missouri and Mississippi State. The Vols racked up a 38-23 rebounding advantage against Kansas and connected on 16 of 17 free throws.
"We had a situation where we were not looking to shoot the ball a couple of weeks back," Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "We just weren't taking open shots, and it was forcing us into late-clock situations and turnovers. We had 18 turnovers in back-to-back games, and the majority was due to guys not taking open shots. In our last game, we took shots, but they didn't go in.
"Tonight, we took shots and we made them. Guys know now that they better take open shots. If not, it just bogs everything down."
When asked about Tennessee's decided rebounding edge, Barnes said: "Either we're going to get tough enough to do that, or we're going to struggle and lose games because of it. I thought we were able to do that early, but now we'll see if we're tough enough to continue doing it."
Yves Pons led the victorious Vols with 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range. Jaden Springer added 13 points, while John Fulkerson and Victor Bailey Jr. chipped in 11 apiece.
Barnes started both of Tennessee's five-star freshmen for the first time this season, with Springer and Keon Johnson joined in the first five by Pons, Fulkerson and Santiago Vescovi.
"I thought it played out well," Barnes said of the new lineup. "We thought a couple of weeks back that we were moving in that direction, but then Jaden got hurt, and it really slowed that down. This last week he's been able to practice some, so we were able to put that group together. I thought Josiah came off the bench and did a terrific job."
Vescovi, Pons and James gave the Vols a 3-for-3 start from 3-point range, which resulted in a 17-8 lead. An Olivier Nkamhioua jumper gave Tennessee its first double-digit advantage at 21-10 at the 9:51 mark of the first half, and another Pons 3-pointer with 3:45 before halftime put Tennessee up 33-19.
A second 3-pointer by James with 2:15 left gave the Vols their largest first-half lead at 38-23, and they went to the break up 40-26. Tennessee was 5-of-7 (71.4%) from long range during the first 20 minutes, while Kansas was just 1-of-12 (8.3%).
When Bailey connected on a 3-pointer five minutes into the second half to extended Tennessee's lead to 56-35, Jayhawks coach Bill Self called a timeout with the outcome all but over. Self was seeking his 720th career win that would have matched Barnes, but Barnes instead won his 721st contest.
David McCormack led the Jayhawks with 17 points, while Marcus Garrett added 15.
The SEC won the Big 12/SEC Challenge for just the second time in eight opportunities, with the league now holding a 25-24 edge the past five seasons after the Big 12 built a 20-10 advantage through the first three years of the event. Tennessee improved to 2-4 all-time against Kansas, with its other win occurring in January 2010 inside Thompson-Boling against a Jayhawks team ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Vols avenged losses to the Jayhawks during the past two seasons.
"This was our third year in a row to play Kansas, and we knew the only way we could gain respect was by playing hard," James said. "We were right there the last two years, but we couldn't get it done."
Said Fulkerson: "We knew what a big game this was for the seniors, Coach Barnes and for our program. We knew we had to come ready to play, and I think we did just that."