Let’s take a quick look at Five Things from Tennessee’s 67-41 loss at sixth-ranked Florida on Saturday in the O’Dome.
Florida's Scottie Wilbekin (left), Will Yeguete (center) and Patric Young (right)
The Vols (12-7, 3-3 SEC) never got going on offense against the Gators (17-2, 6-0), but they hung in there to trail by just seven points at halftime. But they still couldn’t get going after the break, and Florida poured it on to give Tennessee its most embarrassing long in a long time.
DON’T DISCREDIT FLORIDA
Many things went wrong for Tennessee today. Few things went right. That much is crystal clear.
But don’t forget to credit Florida for a fantastic performance.
Tennessee entered Saturday’s game averaging nearly 75 points, and Florida played at Alabama on Thursday night.
Did the Vols play their worst game of the season? Yes.
But did Florida play its best game of the season? Yes.
Vols' Antonio Barton (UT photo)
And a team that has been to three consecutive Elite Eights looks like another genuine Final Four contender — a team that hasn’t lost at home in 26 games and probably won’t lose there this season.
POINT GUARD PROBLEMS
This, as much as anything, is holding back the Vols.
No, All-SEC senior guard Jordan McRae did not play well Saturday.
But McRae’s struggles are rare.
Tennessee’s point guard problems are much more common.
Vols' Jarnell Stokes (UT photo)
Point guards are the head of the snake, and the Vols continue to look bad against full-court pressure. Not only does Tennessee fail to attack full-court pressure, but sometimes the Vols play dead. That works during bear attacks, but not on the basketball court. And that starts with the point guards. They have to be better, or this team won’t make the NCAA Tournament.
No, point guards don’t solve every problem in basketball.
But they would solve a lot of the things that are killing these Vols.
TOUGHNESS ISN’T THE ISSUE
When a team uses “Tougher Breed” as its slogan and gets embarrassed on the road, it’s easy to poke fun at that team.
But toughness isn’t Tennessee’s problem.
At no point in that game did the Vols — especially All-SEC junior forward Jarnell Stokes — stop playing hard. They just never played well, aside from Stokes on some occasions.
Vols' Jeronne Maymon (UT photo)
Blood and sweat can beat many opponents — most, even. But toughness alone can’t beat these Florida Gators.
These aren’t the Gators of a few years ago who ran a beautiful offense but backed down when you pushed them. These Gators push back. And when Tennessee gets pushed back, it doesn’t always have the offensive skills to win games. It doesn’t have enough players who can create their own shot when a defense chews up their game plan and spits it back into their face.
It’s not fair to suggest Tennessee didn’t have a plan. But it was tough to see what the Vols’ plan was in that game. Florida’s defense is very, very good — the best in the SEC — but it shouldn’t make a veteran-laden offense like Tennessee’s look quite that bad.
WHY THE BUNNIES, THOUGH?
Tennessee’s perimeter shooting numbers at Florida were terrible. Absolutely, inarguably terrible. But that happens from time to time, particularly on the road against quality opponents.
But what also happened in that game, and what happens to the Vols all too often, was a puzzling number of missed “bunnies” — shots within a few feet of the rim.
Players like Patric Young and Will Yeguete have a way of making even lay-ups much more difficult than they’d be against air. No sensible person should dispute that.
Vols coach Cuonzo Martin (KNS photo)
But the fact is Tennessee’s players also are on scholarship, and they have to finish around the rim.
Everyone knows that well-defended possessions that get ruined by a lucky heave or a bad bounce are psychologically deflating. But missed bunnies at the end of the good possessions have the same effect. And this happens way too often for Tennessee — a team that doesn’t always shoot well enough from the perimeter to offset that.
The Vols spend inordinate amounts of time on drills designed to eradicate these erroneous bunnies. But at some point, perhaps it’s just a mental problem.
Whatever the problems, though, the Vols need to pinpoint and answer them. And soon.
It wouldn’t be fair to bury this basketball team. It’s January. Things can change.
But what happened to the Vols on Saturday was really, really bad. Unacceptably bad. And that needs to be noted. And everyone in that program — from the coaches and players down to the trainers and equipment managers and water boys — needs to understand that. And it needs to improve.
No one in the SEC will feel sorry for the Vols. Wednesday’s visitors — Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss Rebels — certainly won’t feel sorry for them. Henderson will show up with a handful of shovels in hopes of burying the Vols. And he’s capable of doing that if the Vols don’t show up with a big-time response.
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247