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Tennessee Basketball: 5 Keys for Vols to be a Final Four Contender

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Tennessee looked like a Final Four team when it mauled Michigan State in an exhibition and tamed Illinois at Thompson-Boling Arena.

But in the first half against North Carolina and the second half against Georgia Southern, the Vols looked like a team that wouldn’t make the field of 68.

That’s college basketball. There are ups and downs within a season, a game, a half, a five-minute stretch.

The key is to get hot at the right time – and that would be March.

Tennessee’s men’s team has never made a Final Four. It has made one Elite Eight.

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It appears to have the talent to make a run this season. UT is ranked No. 7 in the nation, has quality wins over Wisconsin, Illinois and NC State and is considered the favorite to win the SEC.

But in this tournament sport, how well the Vols fare in March is most important.

Here are five keys for Tennessee to be a Final Four contender:

  • Josiah-Jordan James to keep playing at a consistently high level. He was terrific in a 79-70 victory over NC State, tying a career-high 23 points (he hit 5 of 7 3s) to go with 7 rebounds and three assists. James is a Swiss Army knife and when he’s swishing 3s, he’s that much more productive and UT is that much more dangerous.
  • Zakai Zeigler must keep progressing. Ziegler had his best game of the season against the Wolfpack, scoring 20 points, dishing out eight assists and making two steals in the backcourt that led to layups. Ziegler was pressing upon his return from ACL surgery, forcing passes and shots. But his play against NC State signals he’s back to his sophomore form.
  • Improve inside defensive play. NC State 6-9 forward D.J. Burns, a former Vol who left the program four years ago, had his way inside against UT in the second half, scoring 13 of his 15 points after the break and recording five assists. Other big men had hurt UT: Hunter Dickenson of Kansas had 17 points and 20 rebounds.  Zack Edey of Purdue had 23 points and 10 rebounds. Andrew Bacot of North Carolina had 22 points and 11 rebounds. Jonas Aidoo and/or Tobe Awaka must do a better job containing opponents big men.
  • Dalton Knecht must contribute when he’s not scoring. Knecht had a bad shooting game against NC State, making just 1 of 7 field-goal attempts. When he’s off the mark shooting, he must rebound and pass or play defense. He did neither against the Wolfpack. Knecht has been a liability at times on defense, but he also ranks among the team leaders in steals. Knecht can be an elite scorer – he had 37 against UNC – but he needs to improve his all-around game.
  • A trio of guards must shoot better from beyond the arc. Jordan Gainey (32.2%) Santiago Vescovi (29.5%) and Zakai Ziegler (28.9%) are all shooting below 33% from 3-point range. Gainey shot 49.3% from outside as a freshman at USC Upstate. He is 5-for-22 on 3s in the last five games. Vescovi made 40.3% from long range as a sophomore. He was over 38% for his career entering this season. Ziegler made 35.2% as a freshman. Surely each w8ill improve their shooting as the season progresses.

Of course, doing those things would likely mean the Vols don’t have prolonged scoring droughts, like they’ve had in recent years when being eliminated from the NCAA tournament.

The key for teams that make the Final Four, or Elite Eight, is to be in the top 30 on offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Doing one or the other likely won’t be good enough.

Tennessee is capable of being among the nation’s top offensive and defensive teams.

And if they’re able to do the five things we’ve outlined, a Final Four is a distinct possibility.

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