By Joseph Bonanno
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– No. 3 Tennessee put on an offensive beat-down in a 88-56 win over No. 14 Longwood in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
Rick Barnes has always gotten criticism on his NCAA Tournament runs. In his career, he has only made one Final Four and has been bounced in the first and second rounds 10 times by a lower seeded team, including with the 2017-18 No. 3 Vols against Loyola-Chicago and last season’s No. 5 team against Oregon State.
In those games, one common thing helped work to take down Tennessee: poor shooting. This, however, was not the case for the Vols in Thursday’s game against Longwood.
With the Lancer’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a program, it seemed like another Cinderella story was in line to take the Vols down. However, a historic shooting performance from Tennessee proved many fans who were doubting Barnes wrong.
The Vols, who got off to what looked like another slow start, took off after the first few minutes of the game behind sixth-year senior forward john Fulkerson’s 13 first-half points, Tennessee scored 54 points in the first half, which was the most it had scored in a single half this season.
The Vols’ flurry of offensive blows mostly came from the 14 made 3-pointers,which is tied for second most in a single NCAA Tournament game for a Tennessee team. Tennessee’s 58.3% 3-point shooting mark is the highest percentage for the program in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee’s junior guard Santiago Vescovi led the deep-shooting charge going 6-8 with 18 points and tying a Tennessee single-game NCAA Tournament record for 3-pointers made set by Chris Lofton back in 2006/2007. Vescovi also made his 100th 3-pointer of the season, and becomes just the second Vol to achieve that mark in a single season (Lofton).
The Vols shot a whopping 60% from the floor, which the the highest mark on the season and the highest in an NCAA tournament game since shooting 58.9% against Longbeach State in 2007. Tennessee also had the most assists (29) and steals (13) in the program’s NCAA Tournament history.
Five Vols scored in double digits, leading to Tennessee’s 10th 80-point game of the season.
Thoughts and Takeaways
The game was pretty much decided by half time, especially when Rick Barnes draws up a Uros Plavsic dunk off of an inbound lob, Tennessee flat-out out matched Longwood. A combination of suffocating defense and electrifying offense knocked the Lancers off balance early and created a insurmountable lead.
Tennessee has been playing with the most confidence any Vols team under Barnes has ever played with. The long scoring droughts that were seen earlier in the season have subsided, and the Vols are being decisive and confident with their shots.
This confidence stems mostly from the fabulous combination of freshman guards with Kennedy Chandler and Zaikai Zeigler, however in the first-round match, it was the veteran players in juniors Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James and super-senior Fulkerson that showed out.
Vescovi shot the 3-ball as good as he has all season, at one point hitting four in a row. His constant moving off-ball is such an underrated skill that has allowed him to become just the second Vol to have 100 3-pointers in a single season. It’s also the reason he was able to get so many good looks against Longwood.
Although Vescovi was hot, James showed out just as much. He went 6-9 from the field, scoring 17 points, including hitting three straight 3-pointers and a buzzer beater to cap off a 16-3 run at the end of the first half. James has one of the prettiest midrange jump shots in college basketball, a skill that will help out the Vols’ possible shooting struggles tremendously throughout the tournament.
Fulkerson was the Tennessee player that jumpstarted Tennessee’s offense. With 10 straight points off the bench, Fulkerson was able to set the tone for the rest of the game, and help space out the floor for Vescovi and James deep. His leadership on the floor is unmatched, even when coming off of the bench.
If Barnes is going to continue to keep getting these type of performances from his veteran players, combined with the skill and production that his young freshman stars can bring, Tennessee can easily be one of the scariest teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Extending from its SEC Tournament victory, Tennessee is playing its most consistent basketball at the best time possible. If the Vols can continue to produce the kind of offensive production shown in Thursday’s win and combine it with one of the country’s top defenses, the Vols should be able to make a deep run.
That being said, Tennessee’s next task is against an angry No. 11 Michigan team who is coming off of an upset win over No. 6 Colorado State on Thursday. Barnes said himself that the Wolverines are “really big” and a huge difference compared to Longwood.
Tennessee is going to need a bigger presence from big-men Uros Plavsic, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, and Jonas Aidoo to help deal with Michigan’s post-presence.
The NCAA Tournament second-round matchup will take place Saturday afternoon at Gainbridge Fieldhouse where the Vols look to advance to their second Sweet Sixteen while under Rick Barnes.