By Ken Cross
If the first two weeks of the college basketball season are any indication, the Tennessee Volunteers have been sorely undervalued in evaluations of their potential coming into the. The Vols picked up withs over Purdue and N.C. State in finishing the Battle 4 Atlantis with a third place finish. They also fought Villanova to the end of their semifinal matchup with Villanova in losing 85-76 after dominating the first half and taking a 12-point lead after the first 20 minutes.
“We know we’ve got some guys that are consistent, we can count on them, but for us to be the program we want to be; the other players on the bench are going to have to get more engaged, every minute counts,” said Vols coach Rick Barnes.
Tennessee showed a combination of power and athleticism in beating Purdue in overtime in the opener and then the Volunteers were able to play at a slower pace with the 67-58 win over the Wolfpack in the third place game on Friday.
“It’s a nice win for us and we’ll leave here knowing a little bit more about our team, and know we have to get back and get back to our regular routine and go from there,” explained Barnes.
The versatility and depth of this team looks like a major plus as the season gets into the middle of a pre-conference schedule that includes road dates at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest and a home game with North Carolina before the SEC opener against at home against Arkansas on Dec. 30.
“Defensively we’ve been pretty consistent,” acknowledged Barnes after Tennessee held N.C. State to 38.2 percent on the afternoon.
The post play across the boards was strong in the three games in three days. Grant Williams dominated Purdues 7-footers Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms in the paint and displayed a physical presence with the versatility of Villanova’s bigs. He was workmanlike in the win over the Wolfpack with 14 points and six rebounds. Kyle Alexander had a 13-rebound performance with four blocked shots against the Wolfpack as well.
“Kyle did a great job coming in, blocking shots, there was a huge block on Braxton Beverly where he went full court, I think we were up six, and he came down and got the block,” pinpointed Williams, “And after that we held them down to that two seconds on the shot clock and got a stop there, so just multiple stops is what we needed to do.”
Obviously, any loss in unacceptable, but the grittiness and scrappy play of the Volunteers in taking a 46-34 lead over Villanova at the half before dropping an 85-76 decision showed where the Volunteers can go. The key there was sustainability from half to half against a Top 5 team.
“The pressure and the turnovers inspired that run for them,” Williams, “When you don’t take shots on offense, when they get points easily on turnovers from out in transition and they get more possession on offense, it’s hard.”
Williams’ play was solid in the lane in all three games as he averaged 18.7 points, 7.3 boards, and 3 assists over the three-game trip.