Eight Games, Pt. 8: Ghost Town

Before (2019-20)

This season, meanwhile, started with almost no hype whatsoever. Tennessee entered unranked (though close to the top 25), and most fans agreed that it would be a nice accomplishment if the team made the NCAA Tournament. Some projection systems were quite rosy (KenPom notably had Tennessee 19th); others were doubtful that this would gel together properly (Bart Torvik’s had Tennessee 81st on opening night).

Either way, the team eventually had to move on. Gone was Williams (the back-to-back SEC Player of the Year and All-American), Schofield (first-team All-SEC and second-round draft pick), Bone (second-team All-SEC, surprising late-round draft pick), and Kyle Alexander. There were also a couple of underclassmen departures seen as surprises: Derrick Walker (Nebraska) and D.J. Burns (Winthrop). Tennessee still had Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner to rely on, but the roster beyond that was a lot of question marks.

Tennessee had to find ~130 minutes of playing time (out of a possible 200) per night from some collection of the following:

  • Yves Pons (one-time starter who played 11 total minutes in the NCAA Tournament)
  • John Fulkerson (post-hype bench player who was Tennessee’s seventh man the season prior)
  • Jalen Johnson (little-used bench player with good shooting stats and not much else)
  • Josiah-Jordan James (a 5* freshman)
  • A collection of less-hyped freshmen (Davonte Gaines, Olivier Nkamhoua, Drew Pember, and Uros Plavsic)
  • uh
  • well

This was hopefully going to look quite a bit better by the time March rolled around than it would in November. Tennessee simply didn’t have much to work with, and a mid-summer attempt at getting Kerry Blackshear (graduate transfer center) to pick Tennessee over Florida didn’t work out as Rick Barnes had hoped. It was sort of like watching a TV show in its sixth season when they’ve suddenly replaced the main characters with new actors after a contract dispute. You tried as hard as you could not to notice, but it was impossible.

Tennessee was given a pair of games to gel (14-point win over UNC Asheville, 19-point win after a second-half comeback against Murray State) before heading to Toronto??? to play #20 Washington??? That still doesn’t feel right, but it happened and the guy that’s at every Raptors game was there.

When the schedule was announced, this felt like a loss for two reasons: 1. Washington had Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart, two likely first-round draft picks; 2. Washington ran a 2-3 zone on nearly every possession. Considering they were playing a team that had something around 2.5 known commodities that could shoot a basketball consistently, the idea of Tennessee scoring enough points to steal an early-season win wasn’t terribly realistic. You hoped for the best (a win) and put your cup on to protect against the worst (Tennessee scoring in the mid-50s in a loss).

So I think pretty much everyone was surprised that this Tennessee roster came out and controlled the game from start to finish to the point of Washington, coached by a Syracuse acolyte, having to go to a man-to-man defense for about half the game.

This was the sort of “oh, yeah, Rick Barnes is still the coach” game. A consistency of most of Barnes’ tenure has been the ability to find open pockets in zone defenses and exploit those over and over until the defense finally admits defeat. Tennessee did that so well in this game that it seemed to torpedo a promising Washington season before it even got started. (Washington would go 5-13 in Pac-12 play, which eventually neutered how good this win felt at the time.)

A couple of other cupcake wins followed (Alabama State and Chattanooga), which then led into Tennessee going down to Florida to play in the Emerald Coast Classic. This was a new-ish in-season tournament played at a community college that somehow managed to attract two Top 20 teams (#17 Tennessee, #20 VCU) as well as Florida State and Purdue, two perennial NCAA Tournament teams.

Tennessee played as poor of an offensive game as I could’ve imagined against Florida State in the opener and proceeded to lose by…all of three points. Felt pretty good if that’s as bad as you think you can do. This was followed by a matchup with VCU played on genuinely the worst broadcast I have seen from a matchup of two seemingly good teams in my entire life.

Tennessee was in control of the game (played at the same time as the 6-5 football team playing at home versus Vanderbilt, so you can imagine how that helped viewership) for roughly 25-30 minutes before a VCU run made it a back-and-forth game all the way to the finish. It was nicely tied at 69 with just a few ticks on the clock. To avoid overtime, Tennessee needed to find a big shot to get them over the hump and out of Nowhere, Florida with a win. Shocking everyone who watched basketball from 2016 to 2020, they chose Lamonte Turner.

Game, blouses.

Entering December, Tennessee was in the Top 25 and feeling pretty good about themselves. It was hard not to. How was this strange collection of weirdos and misfits making it work? John Fulkerson, through all of seven games, went from fine bench player to best player on the roster. Yves Pons finally began to look like a basketball player and not a workout machine. James, Johnson, and Bowden had struggled, but Barnes was getting a surprisingly positive contribution from Davonte Gaines, who appeared to be a defensive hound.

Teams with this collection of talent and lack of experience are bound to have poor stretches of basketball. It couldn’t last forever. I really do wish it didn’t have to end in such gross fashion: a nasty 51-47 home loss to a mediocre Memphis side followed by a 12-point road loss to Cincinnati four days later. That Cincinnati team would win their regular season conference title, but it still wasn’t exciting. Tennessee couldn’t shoot a basketball anymore; over a seven-game stretch stopping with Cincinnati, the team shot a disgusting 31-for-133 (23%) from deep. It was no longer fun.

It got worse. Tennessee’s only win in a 34-day span came with horrific news: Lamonte Turner’s career at Tennessee would end early because of that “nagging shoulder injury.” We later found out he’d spent the entire offseason learning how to shoot left-handed because he couldn’t bear the thought of not playing basketball for Tennessee. It was perhaps because of this that Tennessee brought a little-known Uruguayan recruit to campus in November, named Santiago Vescovi.

Vescovi committed two days after his lone visit. In a Jarnell Stokes-like situation, he somehow became immediately eligible and would be available for Tennessee as soon as the New Year started. They’d need him badly. The first post-Turner game saw them lose 68-48 at home to Wisconsin. Tennessee’s offense was putrid and needed an infusion. To his credit, Vescovi tried desperately to bring it.

Vescovi’s first college game featured him draining six threes, and Tennessee as a whole made 13 – their best output of the season. That seemed better. It still wasn’t enough. Tennessee was rocked at home by an okay LSU team, 78-63. A few post-Vescovi wins would follow, though, and temporarily, it seemed like Tennessee had stabilized their season. Prior to traveling to play #1 Kansas on January 25th, Tennessee sat at 12-6 overall and 4-2 in SEC play. It wasn’t beautiful, but they were reasonably on track to still making a backdoor NCAA Tournament appearance.

Tennessee couldn’t pull off a shock road upset, but a 74-68 loss was nothing bad. It was what came next that wrecked everything. Tennessee would draw a wretched Texas A&M team at home, a group that had lost to Fairfield, Harvard, and Temple in non-conference play. Games like these are ones you can’t afford to lose if you like making the Big Dance. Tennessee lost. They kept losing: Mississippi State that Saturday, Kentucky at home the next Saturday. Every useful win (a 69-68 road comeback at Alabama in mid-February, for instance) was swiftly followed by a blown opportunity (63-61 loss to South Carolina four days later).

Tennessee entered a game with Florida on February 29th at 15-13, 7-8 in the SEC. To have any sort of bubble shot, they’d have to win out, and that would involve beating three NCAA Tournament teams in a row. For one of the few post-November times in this season, Tennessee put together their best shot. They led by 15 at half behind a dominant defensive effort, then proceeded to let Florida back in the game. Up 55-54 with a couple minutes left on the clock, Tennessee needed a bailout shot to rescue a bad possession.

Prior to Turner’s injury, this was his job. In his absence, no one had adequately been able to fill that role. Jordan Bowden had struggled throughout his senior season; Yves Pons was not exactly a shoot-first player; Vescovi was averaging seven turnovers a game at one point in his half-season. In a move that would have stunned people three months prior, this job fell to John Fulkerson, a guy who was having a breakout season in his fourth go at it in college basketball. The problem: Fulkerson was 25 feet from the basket with no time left on the clock.

Accept the mystery.

This leads Tennessee into a road date with the best team in the SEC and a top 10 team in the nation: Kentucky. This was a Kentucky team receiving their usual early-March championship hype with one unusual thing about it: they were ranked #26 by KenPom. This was because of a couple of things: 1) Kentucky had a truly wretched November loss at home to Evansville, who proceeded to go 0-18 in the MVC; 2) While Kentucky was 24-5 and 14-2 in the SEC, very few of their wins came by the blowout variety. Kentucky had won fourteen games by single digits, which is gold if you’re a commentator looking for a narrative and annoying as hell if you’re a fan of any other team.

So that’s where we’re at in this final episode: Tennessee is a .500 SEC team with little postseason hope; Kentucky is the best team in the conference with the SEC Player of the Year hoping to make their first Final Four since 2015. Should be an easy one for the home team.

NEXT PAGE: Devil in a new dress

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