all VOL, y'all.

Disaster averted: Vols hold off Vandy

Vols

Are Cuonzo’s guys getting closer to finding their identity as a basketball team?

Tennessee got off to a fast start at the Tommy Bowl last night, holding the Vanderbilt Commodores scoreless for the first 6:47 on their way to building 12-0 lead in a contest that looked destined to become a joke. But the Vols (11-8, 3-4 SEC) missed three of four from the charity stripe in the game’s final minute, thus giving Vanderbilt the unlikely opportunity to have the last laugh.

And the Commodores (8-11, 3-5 SEC) looked poised to do just that, getting two point-blank looks at game-winning buckets. But Kendron Johnson’s layup somehow rimmed out, and Kevin Bright’s tip fell short. When the final buzzer sounded, disaster had been averted, as Tennessee notched its second consecutive one-point home victory, both courtesy of critical defensive stops on the game’s last possession.

The strong winds that swept through our region last night? They could well have been started by the collective sigh of relief from the 16,000 plus who stood witness. They weren’t alone, for the players had exhaled, too, only I’m hoping theirs was a sigh of belief. Because they played very good basketball for large stretches of the game last night, and proved that they could and should be a factor in the conference as we head into the heart of the SEC schedule.

But more importantly, last night’s game marks the second consecutive one where Tennessee caught a much-needed break to procure the victory, an encouraging sign to be certain for Lady Luck hasn’t exactly been frequenting Knoxville of late. But after the (correct) no-call on Saturday and the missed game-winners last night, one gets the sense that maybe — just maybe — the ball is starting to bounce Tennessee’s way, which could explain why this team looks as if its starting to find its identity.

Consider the following:

Jarnell Stokes

For the second consecutive contest, Jarnell was a monster on the boards. And, not coincidentally, for the second consecutive contest, he got off offensively, too. Before the crowd had even gotten a chance to settle into their seats, he’d already grabbed three rebounds. The five points and one assist that came with it? Well, that’s the kind of thing that will usually come for Jarnell when he cleans the glass like that. His final line: 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 3 blocks and 19 points thanks to going 8-12 from the field and 3-4 from the line.

Being physical on the glass is the perfect way to assure that Jarnell plays a vital role in each of the Volunteers’ contests. If he can continue to exhibit that kind of rebounding effort, things will take care of themselves — both for him and for his team. The fact that he’s notched two consecutive double-doubles should be very encouraging for Volunteer faithful.

Skylar McBee

Skylar was huge, hitting his first three-point bucket since the Clinton administration. He dumped in two more from beyond the arc and added a free throw for good measure to finish with 10 points, the only other player not named Jarnell Stokes to hit double figures. This team is capable of a lot more if they have a viable threat from downtown which is exactly why Skylar logged 23 minutes last night — over twice as many as he’d gotten in recent games. Here’s hoping he’s found his mark.

Josh Richardson

You know you’re always going to get a great effort out of Richardson on defense. Last night, he parlayed that with 10 rebounds and an efficient 6 points on 5 shots.

Trae Golden / Brandon Lopez

One piece of bad luck for the Vols was Golden’s injured hammy. I’ve not heard any official word, but I gotta think that’s going to take at least a week, probably two, to recover from. Which means that Brandon Lopez suddenly becomes critical. And he played well last night with three assists (two of them, flat-out beauties) in just ten minutes. As long as he plays like that, there’s not much more you can ask from him, though I will put in the following request.

Please discourage people from calling you B-Lo.

Armani Moore

Great to see him in the starting lineup last night. Even better to see him put up seven shots. I hope he continues to work on finding his niche offensively in addition to everything else you know you’ll get from him — rebounds, blocks, rebounds, athleticism and effort.

Jordan McCrae

The most encouraging thing about last night was that UT won despite the fact that Jordan had an off game. Yet even though he was off, his on-court demeanor was extremely level. It’s always hard to tell what the true dynamic of a team is, but he looks to be the de facto leader of the Vols. And now that Golden seems likely to miss the next few games, UT will need all the leadership it can get.

Add all of that up and it feels like the players are beginning to find their role which means that Tennessee seems to be creeping toward an identity that’s proven to be hard to find this year. And with that identity, and a few kind bounces, the Vols might just prove to be a team to be reckoned with in the weeks to come.

A lot of work remains to be done. And the Vols can’t be pleased by how close they came to losing a game which they seemed to dominate (though the stats were a lot closer than I would have imagined). Even so, they’ve got the highest RPI victory of any team in the SEC this year (over #17 Wichita St), and have shown the ability to hang tight with tough teams like Ole Miss and Kentucky on the road.

So becoming a legit player in the SEC is not outside of this team’s grasp. Getting to 500 in conference play will be a big step in that journey. The Vols will try to do just that when they head to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday afternoon.

photo courtesy of @Vol_Hoops — a must follow on Twitter

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