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Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes talks with his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

KNOXVILLE — It was early Monday afternoon inside Thompson-Boling Arena and Rick Barnes was preparing his basketball team for Tuesday night's visit from South Carolina some 18 hours away.

"Just do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it," he said to more than one Volunteer, more than a slight hint of exasperation in his voice. "How many times do I need to say that?"

If college basketball coaches everywhere aren't quite at the season's dog days, they're close. A season that began for most folks by the second week of November is now two months long. Conference play's begun. The haves and the have-nots are starting to separate themselves. Time to put up or shut up.

Only with Barnes' Big Orange bunch it's not so clear cut. Much as last season ebbed and flowed far more than Barnes might have preferred, so it's also been this season for the Vols, who are No. 22 in the latest Associated Press poll. Now 10-4 overall, they enter the South Carolina game with a 1-2 league mark, though it's also fair to say that UT will be far from the only Southeastern Conference squad to lose road games at Alabama and LSU.

What is probably more frustrating is a team that knocked down 17 3-pointers early in the season against UT-Martin has hit but 23 of 87 in league play and 10 of those makes came from a single player — junior Santiago Vescovi.

"I do think we've got better offensive players than some of the numbers show," Barnes said during a Monday morning press conference. "I can tell you I know that because if you were going strictly by the numbers, you wouldn't see our guys being guarded as tightly as they are. So, (opposing) coaches know they're capable of making those shots."

And one day they no doubt will, especially given the quickness and — to borrow one of CBS analyst Clark Kellogg's favorite terms — "spurtability factor" of UT freshman point guards Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler.

"When you get the penetration that we can get sometimes with our guards, those opportunities are going to be there," Barnes said of the drive-and-dish opportunities (for 3-pointers) that should come with such guard play. "We have had a lot of uncontested shots that we did not make. We are going to make shots. I believe that, I really do."

It's a long season. Study earlier box scores and the Vols knocked down nine 3-pointers in 20 attempts against North Carolina. They hit 10 of 23 against East Tennessee. They bagged 11 of 25 against USC Upstate. This is not a team devoid of long-range firepower. It's merely in a slump.

It's also a natural, sometimes painful learning curve that freshmen, particularly freshman point guards such as Chandler and Zeigler have to go through.

"Everybody's more athletic (at this level)," said Chandler on Monday when asked about the transition from high school to college. "Everybody can play. Everybody plays harder. (It's tougher) to get my shot off."

It can also be tougher to escape a bad performance, thanks to those who mean well but sometimes cause more questions than answers to fill the mind of a struggling athlete.

"I think there's outside pressures, I do," said Barnes. "There's a lot of people in peoples' ears at times talking to them, and I think that's part of it as we go through it and coach it. You have to keep a pulse on the team."

That said, he also believes this team, blessed with veteran leadership in 12th-year senior John Fulkerson (just kidding, I think), Josiah Jordan-James and Vescovi, is still headed in the right direction.

"This team wants to be good," Barnes said. "We think that we should be undefeated. I wouldn't want it any other way."

The thing is, other than an 18-point loss to Villanova on Nov. 20, the Vols could easily be unbeaten in their other 13 games. Unable to hit anything from deep against Texas Tech — they were six of 39 from the 3-point line — they lost by five in overtime in Madison Square Garden. They lost by five at Bama without Chandler and Fulkerson. They were within five at LSU with three minutes to play after being down 20 in the final half before late turnovers led to a 79-67 loss this past weekend.

The constant positive in those defeats was rock-solid defense.

"We will continue to get better defensively," Barnes said. "It may be ugly, but we'll have a chance to win."

Winning ugly is still winning. So as he concluded his press conference and headed for the practice court, Barnes also said this: "We can get so much better. That's what makes it exciting for me and them."

And what should excite Vols Nation is if all those uncontested shots start to be made instead of missed.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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