Eight Games, Pt. 7: Return to Hot Chicken

Before

Which is why you can look at the 2015-16 season as a whole and almost toss it off as a strange mish-mash of Barnes Ideas, Tyndall Concepts, and Martin Hypotheses. To date, this season holds the fastest Average Possession Length a Tennessee offense has posted, along with their highest three-point attempt rate, lowest Assist Rate, lowest defensive Turnover Rate, and highest defensive Assist Rate. You could watch one game on Tuesday and turn in to see a completely different team play on Saturday.

This perhaps explains how Tennessee could follow up maybe the worst loss of the Barnes era to date (a 75-63 road loss to TCU in January) with the first Signature Win over the Barnes era barely 72 hours later (an 84-77 home win over Kentucky). Tennessee had an odd collection of old seniors (Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, Devon Baulkman, Derek Reese) and young gunners (Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Detrick Mostella and Shembari Phillips) that didn’t fit together whatsoever but could occasionally produce fascinating results. They gave up tons of points, but for the first time since March 2010, you could say Tennessee was playing something resembling enjoyable basketball.

A signature moment of this first Barnes year, which was largely a moribund run through SEC play (6-12) that had a Buzz Peterson-like overall record (15-19), was an SEC Tournament Thursday battle with Vanderbilt for the second straight year. The general script was the same (Vanderbilt the 5 seed, Tennessee the 12), but this game meant more than the previous season’s. At the time, Vanderbilt was on the NCAA Tournament bubble. They really couldn’t afford a loss to a bad Tennessee team; if they did, their odds of getting in would be dramatically lowered.

All Vanderbilt had to do was beat a Tennessee squad they’d swept in the regular season by 14 and 17 points. You’d think it would’ve been easy. So, yes, Tennessee led 34-22 at halftime behind a monster bench performance from Mostella and a typical outstanding defensive game from Armani Moore. You kept waiting for Vandy to make their run, but by the time Tennessee took a 44-30 lead with 14 minutes to go, it started to feel like they could really do this.

Slowly but surely, Vandy worked their way back. They took a late lead, 59-58, and Tennessee had to go bucket-for-bucket. With 1:22 to go, it felt like Tennessee was about to demolish Vandy’s dreams yet again:

It was 65-59, Tennessee, with 56 seconds to play. KenPom gave Tennessee a 93.8% chance of winning at this point. Pretty good! Then Luke Kornet hit a three. Then Matthew Fisher-Davis, still there yet again, hit another. It was 67-65, Tennessee with six seconds left. Detrick Mostella, a career 76% free throw shooter, was fouled. Mostella missed his one-and-one attempt…

and got the rebound?!?!?!? This never happens. Mostella had new life. Back to the line he went, for another one-and-one attempt…which he missed again. Wade Baldwin IV strode down to the other end. With no time left on the clock, Baldwin tossed up a game-tying layup, which fell through the hoop. Overtime it was.

Except that in that statement, there was no time left on the clock when Baldwin released the shot. Upon further review, he didn’t get it off in time.

Tennessee tortures Vanderbilt in Nashville once again. A star is…reborn? Reborn.

This was a write-off of a season, but Tennessee fans got a couple of great memories on it. 2016-17 was more of the same, but fans weren’t quite as pleased with the results. The first game was a loss at home to Chattanooga. Tennessee flew to Hawaii and nearly pulled off a pair of huge upsets before falling to future Sweet Sixteen participant Wisconsin (74-62) and Final Four participant Oregon (69-65 in overtime). Two freshmen began to capture fans’ attention during this time: Grant Williams, baby-faced and unusually hard to stop in the post, along with John Fulkerson, a Kingsport kid with a lot of hustle. (Fulkerson would suffer an injury later in non-conference play that took him out for the rest of the season.)

By the time Tennessee made it to January 24 – a home date with #4 Kentucky – Tennessee was sitting at 10-9 overall and 3-4 in the SEC. The season was looking fairly bleak. The best win to this point had been over East Tennessee Statea team that would make the NCAA Tournament (and was coached by Bruce Pearl assistant Steve Forbes) but a team that is also East Tennessee State. It should never be your signature win.

Along with that, Tennessee had seen a somewhat surprising departure in Detrick Mostella. He left early in January; Kwe Parker and Shembari Phillips would follow him out the door after the season. The vibes were getting less good as the honeymoon period waned. Barnes wanted to bring stability, obviously, but he needed a win.

Randomly, he got one. I rewatched this game recently and am still not entirely sure I can explain it. Robert Hubbs dropped 25 points on an Elite Eight defense. Grant Williams posted a 13/4/6 line against the #4 team in America. The second-leading scorer, coming off the bench, was Admiral Schofield with 15 points. And Tennessee won this game 82-80 despite taking only ten three-point attempts and allowing Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo to combine for 46 points.

This spurred a random run of four straight wins where Tennessee got off the mat, sat at 13-9 (5-4 SEC), and started to appear in NCAA Tournament forecasts. They had a serious chance at making the Tournament in Barnes’ second season. And then it all fell apart. Tennessee would finish the season by losing seven of ten, including a horrid SEC Tournament loss to Georgia.

Entering 2017-18, Tennessee was in what some felt was a prove-it-or-lose-it season. It was Year Three under Rick Barnes, and Tennessee had posted a record of 31-35. Kentucky was responsible for Tennessee’s two signature wins, which was great, but Tennessee still hadn’t finished .500 yet in conference. The last time Tennessee had gone worse than .500 in two straight seasons under the same coach? The final two years of Buzz Peterson. Tennessee needed to begin to prove themselves outside of the SEC and gather enough wins to get into their first NCAA Tournament in four years.

The 2017-18 roster was Barnes’ first that was entirely constructed of his recruits and handpicked players. Only one player was a senior – James Daniel – and he was a transfer from Howard University whose most notable aspect was having one of the highest Usage Rates in the entire sport. Tennessee had to figure out to build a rotation out of the following players:

  • Grant Williams (sophomore, best player on 2016-17 team)
  • Admiral Schofield (junior, sixth man on 2016-17 team)
  • Lamonte Turner (sophomore with a 99.5 Offensive Rating his freshman year)
  • Jordan Bowden (sophomore from Knoxville who seemed to be a shooting specialist)
  • Jordan Bone (sophomore with horrid shooting metrics)
  • James Daniel (senior transfer who missed most of 2016-17 season with injury)
  • Kyle Alexander (junior that blocked shots and rarely attempted a shot of his own)
  • Chris Darrington (JUCO transfer)
  • John Fulkerson (redshirt freshman coming off of a catastrophic injury)
  • Yves Pons (four-star recruit, freshman)
  • Derrick Walker (freshman)

Tennessee hoped they could back-door their way in as, like, a 10 or 11 seed. A pair of dominant home wins over Presbyterian (88-53) and High Point (84-53) were fine, but those games don’t really prove much. Tennessee needed to see how they’d stack up against top-end competition.

The year prior, Tennessee was announced as being part of the Battle 4 Atlantis field, which included some serious luminaries in it: #2 Arizona, who Tennessee was only likely to play if they made the championship game, which would require them to beat both #5 Villanova and #18 Purdue. Along with that, Southern Methodist, who entered the tournament at #25 in KenPom, would be there, too. At the time, Tennessee was seen as the fifth-best team in this competition.

#18 Purdue would be up first: a noon battle on Thanksgiving Eve that few planned skipping work for. To Purdue, this was simply a “win and play Villanova” game; for Tennessee, it meant much, much more. They needed to prove themselves at some point. Where better to do it than a resort ballroom in the Bahamas on November 22, 2017?

NEXT PAGE: Today is the day (rock version)

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