You couldn’t read too much into how Tennessee Basketball lost to the Purdue Boilermakers because of the way the game was called. However, the Vols closed out the Maui Invitational a day later with a 69-60 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks, and this is the game that exposed the fatal flaw that will cost them in the NCAA Tournament.
Rocky Top doesn’t have a true inside presence. Jonas Aidoo is athletic, a great defender and a good rebounder. Tobe Awaka can get you some valuable minutes. Neither command the attention necessary for Rick Barnes’ team to be a force when March Madness arrives and withstand a shooting onslaught.
This should have been the type of game Tennessee Basketball won easily. Santiago Vescovi’s three-point shooting returned, as he went 5-of-11 from three with 21 points. Jordan Gainey went 3-of-8 from three with 13 points off the bench. They had only six turnovers and were 7-of-8 from the foul line.
Despite Vescovi and Gainey, though, the Vols were an abysmal 9-of-33 from outside. Dalton Knecht had an off-game, going 1-of-6 from three and 4-of-17 from the field with 13 points. Josiah-Jordan James was 0-for-3 from outside, and Zakai Zeigler was 0-of-4 off the bench. This is the specific issue that will hold Rocky Top back in March.
The reason for the poor three-point shooting was Kansas being able to focus on defending the perimeter because there was no threat of an inside presence. Hunter Dickinson was able to camp out down low, and Aidoo, who was 4-of-10, was no threat. Neither was Awaka, who was 0-of-2 off the bench.
Herein lies the problem. Barnes is adjusting to the times and would like to shoot more threes, as he did in this game, but it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t have a threat inside. That allows teams to play aggressive on the perimeter, and every three-point shot is going to be contested. Bill Self did just that in this game.
It didn’t matter that Vescovi and Gainey played well or that UT took care of the ball. On defense, it didn’t matter that Kansas was an abysmal 11-of-22 from the free throw line and had 15 turnovers while going 4-of-12 from three. Aidoo’s three blocks and 11 rebounds didn’t even matter in this one.
Everything came down to Tennessee Basketball not being able to shoot the three at the pace they need to, and they couldn’t shoot at that pace because they couldn’t score in the paint. You can put that squarely on Aidoo and Awaka, as neither has emerged inside just yet with this team.
Now, there is a path forward for the Vols if nobody emerges. Once Zeigler gets fully healthy, he’ll be able to slash to the basket a lot more, which will soften up those aggressively contested threes. That’s a lot for Barnes to have to bank on, though. If he never returns to form, another March upset loss is coming.