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Tennessee Basketball reveals another issue in loss to Mississippi State: Inability to deal with foul trouble in the post

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Let’s start with the fact that there’s no shame in losing on the road to what appears to be a very good team. Tennessee Basketball was one of four top five teams to lose in the middle of the week, so the Vols don’t need to panic. However, you can’t just dismiss the foul trouble as the reason they lost.

UT lost 77-72 to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss., Wednesday. They overcame a 13-point second half deficit to tie it at 72 with 30 seconds left, but a layup and an and-one by Tolu Smith secured if for the Bulldogs. Dalton Knecht then turned it over on the Vols’ final possession.

An offensive drought in the first half, where they scored 22 points, and turnovers, which they had 16 of, will be the focus of this one. Tennessee Basketball didn’t shoot well from three, either, going 8-of-29 with off nights from Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James.

All of this comes down to foul trouble, though. Jonas Aidoo fouled out of the game on a straight-up defensive play, and Tobe Awaka fouled out too. This was a ticky tack game called by refs, and it took away the Vols’ threat in the post. Losing that threat against a big team takes away their ability to be a threat from the perimeter.

On paper, then, this shouldn’t be a concern. They had an off-night shooting in a very loud arena, and it was because of foul trouble in the post that came from too many quick whistles. The first part is true. However, the second part is a major aspect of this game, so it’s a concern.

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This isn’t the first game Tennessee Basketball has played all year that saw refs with a quick whistle. It won’t be the last. Inevitably, in March, they will play one game with refs who call it like that. College basketball has the worst, most inconsistent refs in any sport, and it’s not particularly close.

At that point, how will they respond? Do you really want to rely on them having enough offensive firepower from the outside to be better on a neutral court than they were on the road Wednesday? That’s a major if. The real question is if they have depth in the post.

Here is where Cade Phillips or J.P. Estrella have to develop. Sure, Jahmai Mashack, Dalton Knecht and James can play in the post, but there always needs to be one true post player out there for Rick Barnes. If there’s a quick whistle, that postgame is gone, and then the three-point shooting is in danger.

As a result, the biggest takeaway from this game is that Tennessee Basketball has to improve its frontcourt depth to deal with the foul trouble that will inevitably come from a poorly officiated game in March. Wednesday should be the wake-up call for Phillips and Estrella.

Good news for the Vols is that Knecht had 28 points, and Zakai Zeigler had 26 points. Both were 4-of-9 from three, and Knecht showed he can still be that elite scorer when everything breaks down. Perhaps on a neutral court he’s the answer when the Vols are desperate offensively due to foul trouble. More help down low would be useful, though.

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