Judging by this game in vacuum, there’s not much you can say that Tennessee Basketball did wrong in its victory over the Syracuse Orange Monday. However, if you judge it by March, the Vols didn’t answer any of the major questions, and let’s be honest, when it comes to Rick Barnes, March is now all that matters.
In UT’s 73-56 Monday to open the Maui Invitational in Hawaii, Dalton Knecht was the entire offense in the first half. However, he left midway through the second half due to cramps with Rocky Top clinging to a 42-39 lead, finishing his day with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting and 3-of-4 from three to go along with four rebounds, three assists and steal and two blocks.
At the point Knecht went out, Syracuse head coach Adrian Autry went to a zone. That’s when Tennessee Basketball put its depth and experience on display at the same time. Josiah-Jordan James, the veteran that he is, played suffocating defense to go with one of his elite offensive performances, finishing with 15 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and one assist.
Santiago Vescovi only had six points, but he managed to attack Syracuse’s zone. Key to that was finding Jonas Aidoo, who made the most of the new defensive alignment, as he scored nine of his 14 points after the switch and also came down with 11 rebounds.
Jahmai Mashack joined James in playing suffocating defense, as he had two blocks, a steal and four rebounds, and he also had six of his eight points after Knecht went out. Zakai Zeigler had a rough day with six turnovers, but he managed to help break that zone in the second half quite a bit and finished teh game with nine points.
Up by five with three minutes to go, the defense took over, as Aidoo hit back to back buckets, and Zeigler then scored six straight points, his final four at the free throw line. Aidoo closed it out with a dunk from Zeigler, and Tennessee Basketball finished the game on a 12-0 run.
All of this showed a lot about the Vols, most of what we already knew. They have experience, they can step it up when somebody goes out, and their defense is dominant. However, they still didn’t answer the two biggest questions that consistently face a Barnes-led team in March.
First off, do they have enough three-point shooting if their defense isn’t cutting it? They were 5-of-14 from three in this game, but they need to hit seven or eight a game if they’re going to make a deep run. Every champion the past decade shot at least 17 three-pointers a game.
Meanwhile, Tennessee Basketball still hasn’t proven it has an inside presence to open things up for the outside shot when necessary. Early on, Aidoo has proven himself in breaking a zone or a perimeter-aggressive man-to-man. However, can he be the inside force needed every play?
Right now, the Vols know they can turn to Knecht for a bucket when they need it. However, Knecht isn’t necessarily the type of player who can command attention inside. Even with his double-double in this game, Aidoo still hasn’t proven that yet either. That’s the final step for this team.
If Tennessee Basketball is able to win a game this week with Aidoo, or maybe even Tobe Awaka, dominating inside while also shooting about 20 three-pointers in a game, then they’ll prove they have what it takes to go deep in March. Until then, this game just proves it’s the same Barnes team as usual.