Defense will be key for No. 9 Tennessee at Texas A&M

NCAA

A quick look at No. 9 Tennessee’s record, ranking and individual player accolades could lead observers to conclude that the Volunteers have their act completely together.

Nope. Coach Rick Barnes says Tennessee (8-1, 2-1 SEC) remains a work in progress entering Saturday afternoon’s conference road game against Texas A&M (6-3, 1-2) in College Station.

Barnes said the Vols are still trying to fit several important players into the right roles. That’s why he tinkered with his starting lineup and substitution patterns during Wednesday night’s 79-74 win over Arkansas.

His motivation?

“Defense,” Barnes said. “Most of these lineups will be changed because of defensive purposes.”

Victor Bailey Jr. is Tennessee’s top scorer (13.4 points per game) and Santiago Vescovi is the team’s assist leader (33 total).

But against the Razorbacks, both were in Barnes’ doghouse.

“The last game, Santi and VJ were terrible on defense,” Barnes said. “The points they gave up. Our guards can’t do that. They can’t put pressure on — when they are not playing to the scouting report, I don’t care how many points they are scoring if they are giving up more. If they are scoring 10, but giving up 12 or 14, it can’t happen.”

Keon Johnson started in Bailey’s place and responded with 14 points and six huge free throws late in the game.

“We are going to keep searching,” Barnes said, “until we find the exact right role for everybody. We will keep doing that.”

John Fulkerson appears to be one player who is in his correct role. He is averaging 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. On Tuesday, he was named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 watch list.

Fulkerson’s only problem, Barnes said, is not being aggressive enough on the offensive end.

“Fulky wants to see his teammates do well,” the coach said.

Against Texas A&M, the Vols will be facing a team in need of a bounce-back win. On Wednesday, the Aggies took an SEC beating from South Carolina. They shot just 34 percent from the floor in Columbia, committed 19 turnovers and were out-rebounded by a 45-31 margin.

The Aggies are led by Emanuel Miller, who has scored in double figures in every game he’s played in this season. Against the Gamecocks, he had a career-high 28 points.

“There are a lot of areas I need to improve, ” Miller said. “And as I need to improve, I will get other guys on the train to bring them along.”

Quenton Jackson is averaging 12.1 points per game while Andre Gordon is averaging 8.9 points.

All the Aggies better have big games on Saturday.

“I know bits and pieces of Tennessee,” Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said. “I know they have really good personnel along with a first-ballot Hall of Famer (in Barnes). I know that defensively, their numbers are elite nationally, and they play with great fundamental force at both ends. We will have trouble scoring and guarding, but we will have even more if our turnover rate stays too high, and they are able to get 19 more shots like South Carolina got tonight.”

–Field Level Media

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