The biggest concern for Tennessee Basketball in its 100-92 loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels on the road Wednesday night had nothing to do with the loss itself. It happened with just over a minute and a half left to go.
UT had fought back from a 22-point first half deficit to cut the lead to 92-84. Dalton Knecht, who scored 37 points in the game in an incredible effort, rolled his ankle the wrong way while driving to the basket, drawing a foul. He had to leave the game.
Jonas Aidoo hit two free throws to cut it to six, but Tennessee Basketball ran out of time and still lost by eight. At the end of the day, though, all anybody would have cared about was Knecht. Rick Barnes said in the postgame that he has a sprained ankle.
While that may keep Knecht out for a bit, he’s got plenty of time to get 100 percent before the heart of the season really begins. As a result, that injury, and the timing of it, is nothing for Vol fans to really worry about at this point.
Now, what about the game? Well, that first half was indeed the worst half of Barnes’ tenure on Rocky Top. However, a lot went into that, and on the road against an elite team led by Hubert Davis, it was a lot the Vols couldn’t overcome.
Tobe Awaka, the Vols’ key inside player off the bench, couldn’t go in this game due to an injury he sustained during the Maui Invitational. Then Aidoo got two fouls early, so he had to go to the bench. That meant UT’s inside game depended on two inexperienced freshmen, J.P. Estrella and Cade Phillips.
No Aidoo or Awaka ruined the Tennessee Basketball interior defense. That forced the Vols to collapse more players inside, and when they did that, the Tar Heels were able to go off from outside, hitting 7-of-16 first half three-pointers. They were also able to get to the foul line a lot.
As a result, they finished hitting 12 of 26 three-pointers and 32 of 38 free throws. That was a legitimate number of free throws, too, as the Vols’ interior defense kept fouling without the help of Awaka and Aidoo for a significant portion of time.
On the other side, UT was 1-of-12 from three in the first half, but with no inside threat to score, UNC could commit to the perimeter. They already have the best perimeter defense in the nation, so naturally, Rocky Top was going to struggle.
In fact, the real story is Tennessee Basketball being able to score over 90 points in the game and 38 in the first half, which should put a team on pace to win. It’s a testament to Knecht dominating along with Josiah-Jordan James, who had 20 points, and Jordan Gainey, who had 11 off the bench.
For a while, now, the book on Barnes’ team is they are too physical and focus too much on defense and interior scoring to go far in the NCAA Tournament, particularly when they have a red-hot shooting team on the other side. The opposite was true in this game.
With no interior scoring due to foul trouble, UT lost its defensive edge too. That won’t happen once Awaka is able to get healthy. The question of inside scoring hasn’t been answered, but you can’t judge it by this game without Awaka and with Aidoo in foul trouble.
Another surprising positive for Tennessee Basketball was the fact that Aidoo was actually able to score 13 points despite being in foul trouble. He may actually be developing into a legitimate threat, something he didn’t show in Maui.
Simply put, too many things were working against the Vols in this game. Are they concerns in March? Well, if the Vols have their best player hurt, their most important inside presence off the bench hurt, their starting inside player in foul trouble and the opposition shooting well from three, they’ll lose.
What are the chances that happens in any game during March? Wild things happen during the NCAA Tournament, and not having the team to overcome them has cost Tennessee Basketball and Barnes in the past, but nobody would overcome what he had to in this game. As a result, this loss isn’t a real concern.