By Josh Ward
Tennessee’s basketball season has taken a wrong turn in February.
The Vols began the month with an 18-3 record and No. 2 ranking in the AP poll after beating Texas 82-71 on Jan. 28.
Tennessee has looked like a different team since then. That’s bad timing with only three regular season games remaining.
But there are several indicators the Vols can salvage the season.
Oddsmakers still have Tennessee among the top 10 national title contenders.
The Vols are No. 3 in the NET ranking, which will help determine their seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Ken Pom ranks Tennessee’s defense as the best in the country.
So what do the Vols need to fix to return to form in the postseason? It starts with…
Tennessee has played the last four games shorthanded.
Senior Josiah-Jordan James has missed four straight games and freshman Julian Phillips hasn’t returned since exiting in the first half against Missouri on Feb. 11.
Their absence has put a lot of strain on the Vols.
Yes, Tennessee lost at Florida and Vanderbilt with both players. But the Vols aren’t the same without James and Phillips.
Look at what Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said about Tennessee missing two starters.
“That changes their team,” Williams said Tuesday night. “(James) has for sure been in their program for four years. (Phillips) is an early-entry pro that will be drafted before his college eligibility is up. I think that changes the complexion of their team, and still it takes all that you have to have a chance to beat them.”
Without them, Tennessee lacks athleticism, scoring options, and depth to help on both ends of the floor.
Can Tennessee win a game or two without James and Phillips?
Sure. The Vols beat Alabama without them.
But can Tennessee go on a long winning streak without those two starters? Don’t count on it.
What they need to count on is…
Hitting free throws
Let us not speak of Tennessee’s (4-of-14) free-throw shooting at Kentucky ever again.
Tennessee didn’t have its best shooters at the line that day, but missed free throws have been costly in several games.
Tennessee needs to do a better job of getting to the line, and the Vols need to take advantage of opportunities when they come.
Part of this goes back to James and Phillips.
They’re Tennessee’s most reliable free throw shooters if we combine their ability to get to the line and knock them down.
Tennessee doesn’t have to be a great free-throw shooting team. But the Vols can’t continue to cost themselves games at the line.
That’s a good way to lose in March.
Making free throws late in games would also lead to…
Better late-game execution
Tennessee has made too many mistakes late in games.
Against Vanderbilt, Tennessee gave up an easy bucket, missed a critical free throw, and allowed the Commodores to have a wide-open three to win the game at the buzzer.
Missouri took advantage of Tennessee’s bad foul, missed free throws, and a lane violation to nail another buzzer-beater against the Vols.
Mistakes in the final few minutes against Texas A&M cost Tennessee a road win on Tuesday.
The Vols have to execute better on offense and limit bad fouls and errors on defense late in games.
Tennessee’s experience should be a plus in crunch time.
Instead, Missouri with a first-year coach looked more composed in the final minutes.
Late in games, teams look to their leader. That will often come back to the point guard.
That’s why Tennessee will lean on…
He makes Tennessee go.
At times this season, Zeigler has looked like the best point guard in the SEC.
But he didn’t look like that in either Kentucky loss.
That costly late-game foul against Missouri? That was committed by Zeigler, who’s also had problems with early fouls.
Opposing teams know how important Zeigler is for Tennessee. They try to attack him to send him to the bench and throw off the Vols’ rhythm.
Zeigler is a playmaker and the guy who needs the ball late in games, either to get his shot or setup his teammates.
Zeigler was masterful against Texas, knowing when to shoot and when to dish the ball.
That kind of play from Zeigler will be a must for Tennessee to have postseason success.
And the Vols have to get more…
Consistent front-court play
Tennessee lacked a front-court presence last year when Michigan knocked the Vols out of the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee missed Olivier Nkamhoua. He’s here now, but he needs to produce.
Tennessee’s best game of the season came against Texas. That was Nkamhoua’s best game of his career.
Nkamhoua is important because of his ability to defend and score from different areas on the floor on offense.
But the Vols can’t count on Nkamhoua alone.
Tennessee’s post players provided exactly what the Vols needed against Alabama.
Nkamhoua, Jonas Aidoo and Uros Plavsic combined to score 31 points. They also grabbed eight offensive rebounds and made it difficult for Alabama’s players to drive to the basket.
Tobe Awaka offers more size and energy off the bench.
Don’t expect one player to make a difference in the front court. But the collective effort will make a big difference in how long Tennessee’s season can last.
The Vols can fix this. But they better hurry.