Rick Barnes places a lot of emphasis on defense, and this year’s Tennessee basketball team is one of the best defensive teams in school history. They showed up again Tuesday night, holding the Mississippi State Bulldogs to just 53 points.
However, the story in this game was offense. UT scored 83 points against a team that throws multiple defensive looks in a game under new head coach Chris Jans.
Five different players scored double figures in this one. Tennessee basketball shot 69 percent from the field and hit 12-of-21 from three.
“We made shots,” Barnes said in his postgame press conference. “I mean, there’s no doubt about it. Obviously, I’ve always said making shots makes up for a multitude of sins.”
With a red-hot offense and a consistently great defense, the Vols were able to jump out to a 16-0 lead six minutes into the game. They finished the first half with 46 points.
Leading the way for Rocky Top was Santiago Vescovi. He finished the game with 14 points, going 4-of-8 from the three-point line and hitting two free throws.
Barnes touted the Vols’ ability to handle a defense that switches and throws multiple looks. That was less than a week after playing the Ole Miss Rebels, who usually stick to a matchup 1-3-1 zone under Kermit Davis.
“That is the one thing I will tell you, we as a staff were really pleased with how our guys handled with what we worked on,” he said. “We had to learn how to play against teams that switch one through five and one through four. Those teams are really trying to keep you out of rhythm.”
While Vescovi shot the ball well, Mississippi State’s switches required the Vols to turn to their bigs. It worked, as Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua each had 10 points. Tobe Awaka had nine points and six rebounds.
Julian Phillips was the star of those bigs, though, as he had 11 points and seven rebounds. Those four players were a combined 19-of-21 from the field.
“We got a little bit there where I thought we were looking for the (3-point shot), but our post guy did a really good job of fighting for space and we moved the ball,” Barnes said. “They switched defenses, and our guards got the ball where they needed to get it when they needed to get it there.”
Coming off the bench, Zakei Zeigler was the best at moving the ball for Tennessee basketball and was a huge reason for the offensive efficiency. The Vols finished with 28 assists.
Zeigler himself had 10 of those assists with only two turnovers. He also had 11 points, making him the only player to register a double-double. Add in three steals, and he was probably the best player on the court.
“Obviously it’s good when you see guys that, you need to see them making shots, make them, but I thought his command of what we needed to do was maybe as good as it’s ever been,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “We had to be good to execute, the way they play and what they make you do. For him to do what he does on the defensive end, then play the kind of floor game he played on the offensive end, is pretty impressive.”
Josiah-Jordan James also returned to the court and finished with eight points and four assists on 3-of-5 shooting. He also had a steal in 17 minutes of play.
That was helpful to the offense, according to Barnes, as Tennessee basketball was able to get its stars more rest. Barnes said the key for the Vols taking off on that side of the ball is for players to not have to log so many minutes.
“When we start getting everyone back together, I do think we’ll get in a rhythm,” he said. “I think if we can get the minutes down, you have guys that play as hard as some of our guys do defensively, they are getting up around the 30, 32, 33 minutes, it is hard to be a good offensive player.”