Prior to Friday’s NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee, we reached out to the expert on all things Volunteers Terry Lambert over at RockyTopTalk.com, SB Nation’s Tennessee site, to learn a bit more about their squad. See their preview of the match-up with the Beavers here.
1) Tennessee only played one Pac-12 team this season (a 56-47 Win over Colorado on 12/8) so most of our fans won’t know them one bit. Can you give a basic overview of what we should know about this Vols squad?
RTT: This Tennessee roster is a fascinating blend of college basketball veterans and NBA Lottery picks. Rick Barnes has gone from a guy that found hidden gems and developed them (See Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield) to a guy that is consistently landing five-star talent in Knoxville.
John Fulkerson and Yves Pons have been here forever, now entering their third NCAA Tournament. Freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are entering their first and likely last NCAA Tournament before heading to the league. Getting the entire thing to gel has been a challenge, but we’ve seen flashes over the last couple weeks.
The Volunteers are built on defense, anchored by former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons. The senior forward is only 6-6, but he’s a legitimate rim protector. Tennessee’s issue has been offensive consistency, particularly in half-court sets. If you can keep the Vols from getting out and running, odds are they’re going to let you hang around until the end.
2) Forward John Fulkerson is the big question mark after sustaining facial injuries in the SEC Tournament. Has there been any update to his status and how does him playing/not playing chance Tennessee’s style?
RTT: Fulky took two nasty elbows to the face and actually ended up with a facial fracture. Rick Barnes hasn’t given much of an update, but judging from how he looked on the sidelines this weekend, I would be surprised if he was cleared to play. Again though, that’s just speculation on my part.
His role on the team has been interesting. He was absolutely offensive option No. 1 last season, but with the addition of the two freshmen guards, his role decreased quite a bit — to the point of where he sort of lost himself. He’s been banged up all season and was just seemingly finding a groove when he took two cheap shots to the face.
Tennessee will play small without him mostly, shifting Pons down to the center spot and moving 6-6 guard Josiah James to a hybrid forward role. Interestingly enough, that look has generated some positive outcomes for Tennessee this season, as evidenced by their near upset of Alabama on Saturday. So while it would be a significant loss, there’s certainly a case to be made for the freedom it seems to provide the guards with.
One note: Tennessee does have seven-footer Uros Plavsic to throw at you down low. He won’t play many minutes, but his length can obviously throw you a curveball.
3) Since their January 16th win over Vanderbilt, the Vols have been 8-7, yet they made a run to the SEC Tournament semifinals. What has been the deciding factor in wins/losses this season for Tennessee?
RTT: A disappearing offense, plain and simple. I’ve mentioned that there’s been some struggles blending the freshmen guards with the veteran forwards, and there kind of seemed to be an indecisive game of tug of war going on throughout conference play. Johnson and Springer took a while to settle in and learn that they were the best options to score on this team, while Fulkerson seemed to struggle with his reduced volume.
Injuries certainly didn’t help things, with Springer, Pons and James missing time. Barnes has mentioned Pons and Fulkerson, along with point guard Santiago Vescovi, playing through issues. So it was certainly eye opening to see them perform so well in the SEC Tournament after nearly a week off. Maybe there was more to the injury story than we knew.
But the simple answer is a lack of aggression on the offensive end. Too many possessions ended with a desperate drive to the basket and a forced, off-balance mid-range floater that clanked off of the rim. Tennessee is at their best when they think less and play free, and we’ve finally seen more of that over the last three games.
4) If Oregon State had one player they could completely take out of the game to wreck the Vols preferred style, who would it be?
RTT: That’s honestly a tough question because Tennessee is so balanced, but I’ll go with Jaden Springer. He’s kind of morphed into a point guard role for the Volunteers late in the year because of his ability to create. He consistently attacks the paint, but does so in total control with his eyes open to make the right play. Sometimes that’s a finish, sometimes that’s a pass. But Springer is the guy that can put the most stress on a defense and make things happen.
5) Finally, do you have a prediction for this game?
RTT: Quite honestly we don’t know much about Oregon State over here, and meeting a team that just ran through a conference tournament to steal a bid is never a fun scenario to face. However, I’ve seen Tennessee play like a different team over the last few games. This team was headed for a 7/8 seed, but they stopped the bleeding, got some rest and seem legitimately re-energized.
I’ll take Tennessee for the win, 68-58.