A month ago, Tennessee had the makings of a Southeastern Conference champion. The Volunteers were voted by SEC coaches as the league favorite, had started the season 7-0 and won 10 of their first 11 games.
But since Jan. 19, the Volunteers are 4-4 and seem to have lost track of the defensive presence that had been a hallmark of their early season success.
Now ranked 19th and trying to avoid consecutive defeats for the second time in a month, they hope to use Wednesday night’s home game in Knoxville against struggling South Carolina to turn things back around and build momentum into the final weeks of the season. The game was moved back a day due to COVID-19 protocols within the Volunteers’ program, the SEC announced Monday.
Tennessee (14-5, 7-5 in SEC) had allowed an average of 52.7 points during those first seven games but has yielded 66.3 against SEC teams. The Volunteers allowed their most points of the season in an 89-81 home win over Georgia on Feb. 10, then fell 78-65 at LSU on Saturday.
“I would say the inconsistency is coming from our older players, and that’s the disappointing thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “If you’re not on edge and you don’t understand that every possession matters, you’re not going to get consistency.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re playing offense or defense.”
Senior forward John Fulkerson was an SEC Player of the Year candidate while averaging 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds through the first 12 games but has averaged 5.4 and 5.1 boards in the last seven and was out of the starting lineup at LSU.
Fellow senior Victor Bailey Jr. averaged 13.4 points on 48.3-percent shooting in the first nine games, but in the past 10 he has averaged just 6.2 points while making 27.6-percent of his shots (18-for-65).
It’s been freshman Jaden Springer (12.2 points per game) who has tried to carry the Vols of late, averaging 24.7 points in the past three games.
Against South Carolina last season, Fulkerson totaled 40 points and 19 rebounds as the teams split the pair of games. The Gamecocks have dropped three straight in Knoxville.
Since pulling off a stunning 72-66 win at then-No. 22 Florida on Feb. 3, South Carolina (5-9, 3-7 in SEC) has shot 38.9 percent — 25 percent from 3-point range — and allowed an average of 79.0 points during a three-game losing streak.
South Carolina leading-scorer AJ Lawson (17.9 ppg) scored 22 in Saturday’s 81-74 home loss to Mississippi. While the Gamecocks forced 20 turnovers, they also committed 19 of their own and allowed Ole Miss to make half of its 44 shot attempts.
“I feel like we’ve just got to compete,” Lawson said. “I feel like we’ve been giving up a lot of plays, just on effort. Getting a rebound, a loose ball. Effort, offensively and defensively. And then, just execute plays.”
Lawson totaled 43 points in the past two games, but in four games against Tennessee in his career he has scored just 31 on 10-of-36 shooting.
–Field Level Media