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Tennessee’s season ends in loss to Florida Atlantic, here’s why

9 min read
Tennessee’s season ends in loss to Florida Atlantic, here’s why

New York City — Tennessee arrived in the Big Apple this week with what looked like a golden opportunity to reach just the second Elite Eight in the history of the program. They’re going to be flying back to Knoxville shaking their heads in disbelief at a wasted opportunity after getting bounced in the Sweet 16 62-55 by Florida Atlantic.

It wasn’t exactly David vs. Goliath stuff, but there’s no question that Tennessee squandered the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come around very often in the world of college basketball.

There are a number of reasons that Tennessee lost this game to an upstart underdog, several in fact, feel free to pick the one you feel was most detrimental to the cause, or maybe you feel like the combination of all the areas the Vols struggled in doomed them to defeat.

Argument No. 1 for why Tennessee isn’t playing Kansas State on Saturday for a chance to go the Final Four: Many will point to the offense—and it was bad, and we’ll get to it—but to me the most damning stat of the night was that Tennessee got out-rebounded by a Florida Atlantic team that starts one player taller than 6-foot-4.

I thought Tennessee would have a tremendous advantage on the boards, not just because of size in the paint, but they were literally bigger at every position on the floor with the collection of long, athletic wings the Vols can run out there.

Nevertheless, it was the Owls who owned a 40-36 rebounding edge when the dust settled. It would have been more decisive than that but Tennessee managed to chase down four offensive rebounds on its last, desperate offensive possession while chucking up contested threes.

Florida Atlantic’s Nick Boyd, all 6-foot-3 of him, led all players with eight rebounds in the game.

The Owls picked up 14 second chance points on 12 offensive boards. Tennessee collected 17 offensive boards but managed just 12 points on those second chances.

Last week Tennessee out-rebounded Duke, the tallest team in the entire field of 68. Tonight one of the shortest teams in the field won the battle of the boards against the Vols.

“The offensive rebounds were — those were big. We normally don’t do that, but we did today,” Rick Barnes said of the work on the glass. “I thought they came up with some really big offensive rebounds at a time when we really needed to finish our defensive possession.

“Certainly proud of the effort that these guys have given us all year, through tough times with injuries, but when it ends like this, it’s always disappointing because we want it all and came up short.”

Argument No. 2 for why Tennessee isn’t playing Kansas State on Saturday for a chance to go the Final Four: It was an awful shooting night for a team that can have awful shooting nights, but it was a really tough night for the seniors.

Tennessee shot a frustrating 33% for the game tonight, were just 6-of-23 from three-point range and an inefficient 7-of-12 at the free throw line. It was overall a rough evening for the Vols’ on offense, but it was especially rough for the senior quintet of Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Oliver Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Tyreke Key.

Those five guys shot a collective 14-of-51 from the floor. That’s 27%. From your veterans. Conventional wisdom says that to go deep in March your older players have to produce and lead the way. That didn’t happen for Tennessee tonight. Not even close.

No one is surprised that Tennessee’s season ended on a night when they struggled to make a shot. It’s got to be disappointing as a head coach though when the guys who have the biggest hand in the tough shooting night that ends your season are the guys who it turns out are playing their last college game at least in part because of their own shooting.

Nkamhoua, who ends his career as one of the most unpredictable players in program history from one game to the next, had one of the signature individual performances of this entire tournament last week against Duke when he exploded for 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting to carry the Vols into the Sweet 16.

Tonight Nkamhoua went 2-of-9 from the floor and finished with six points. He didn’t score his first point until 5:23 remained in the game.

After the game Barnes’ biggest criticism of his team’s offensive play was an inability (or unwillingness) to drive the basketball into the paint and force the action.

Incredibly, given the size discrepancy and Florida Atlantic’s reliance on the three ball, the shorter Owls outscored Tennessee 26-22 in the paint primarily due to their guard’s ability to drive the basketball and finish. The rebounding numbers are just next level unexplainable, but the Owls out-scoring Tennessee in the paint may be even more of an unsolvable mystery.

“Obviously we needed Jahmai Mashack. You saw what he was able to do with driving the ball. We needed more of that from more than one player,” Barnes said. “We needed our post players because they were staying out there (guarding us on the perimeter).

“Again, we needed to be more aggressive going at the basket, I thought, in the second half. And then they were — again, they didn’t change a whole lot from what they were doing in the first half.”

The one single guy on the roster that I thought showed up and played a very solid game on both ends, other than a pretty decent showing from Mashack (7 points, 3-of-6 shooting, four rebounds) was Jonas Aidoo. The sophomore came off the bench to score 10 points and grab seven rebounds in 21 minutes and was a big factor in contesting shots near the rim when he was on the floor.

Tennessee was so bad offensively tonight that they lost a game by seven points in which Florida Atlantic had TWICE as many turnovers (12) as the Vols committed (6). Tennessee had nine more points than FAU off turnovers (12-3), yet lost the game by seven. That’s a stat you won’t see very often.

Argument No. 3 for why Tennessee isn’t playing Kansas State on Saturday for a chance to go the Final Four: The Vols melted down in the second half after squandering an opportunity to build a big lead in the first half.

Tennessee was never playing great in the first half tonight, but they had their chances to build up a cushion that would have come in very handy in the second half.

Tennessee went up by nine points at 21-12 and again at 24-15 during a time where FAU was struggling to make shots, and REALLY struggling to hold on to the basketball.

The Owls had nine turnovers in the first half compared to just two for Tennessee. The Vols had seven extra possessions in the first half and couldn’t make the opponent pay for it. The lead easily could have (and should have) been more than 27-22 at the break. Even as it was happening it felt like Tennessee was missing a golden chance to go up big.

“We went into halftime with a five-point lead. Obviously we missed open shots, they missed open shots,” James said. “But we were disappointed in the way we played. We knew we had to play tougher, but we were up five points, so…”

For the first seven or eight minutes of the second half it didn’t feel like Tennessee’s failure to bury the Owls early was going to cost them. That illusion ended shortly after Mashack scored on a drive to put the Vols up 39-33 with 12:51 left to play.

It was at that point that Florida Atlantic went on a ridiculous run that ended Tennessee’s season one game short of its second Elite Eight trip in program history.

The Owls, who were just 2-of-14 from three-point range in the first half, erupted. They hit three three pointers in the span of 2:57 as part of an 18-2 run that officially turned them into Cinderella.

A Tennessee team that had been awful offensively all night long had no chance of keeping pace once the Owls heated up.

“In the first half they had some (open) shots; we dodged that. But when they started scoring (in the second half), our offense wasn’t very good,” Barnes said. “We gave up too many drives. And then along with that, offensive rebounds where we let them get downhill, a couple situations where those — we did a better job in the second half staying down on shot fakes.”

With 12:51 left in the game tonight Tennessee was up by six points and looked poised to play Kansas St. on Saturday with a chance to earn the first Final Four trip in the program’s history.

Less than six minutes of game play later the Vols were trailing 51-41, looked dead in the water, and even if they weren’t saying it out loud yet, Tennessee fans knew what was coming.

Tennessee fans are understandably frustrated after tonight. Yes, this team dealt with an abundance of injuries this year and finished the season without starting point guard Zakai Zeigler. His absence in the postseason was very clearly a big deal, let’s be honest about that.

Yet anyone, including the head coach himself, would tell you that this team still had plenty to get past a No. 9 seed out of Conference USA in the Sweet 16. I mean this is a squad that beat the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament without two starters. They had enough tonight to get past the Owls and into the Elite Eight.

This one will sting, and unfortunately for a team that really and truly is made up of a bunch of high character young men who are easy to root for and fun to cover, this game is what most Tennessee fans will remember this team and this season for in perpetuity. That’s how this sports stuff works.

The Vols just wrapped up a 25 win season, only the seventh 25 win season in the history of the program. Barnes has been responsible for engineering four of those 25 win seasons, yet has made the Sweet 16 just twice and never gone beyond that.

Tennessee fans have plenty of reasons to feel great about the program, and one big reason to be dissatisfied—lack of success in March. It’s a conundrum.

The program has arguably never been in better shape. Yet in these halcyon days the program has also only played beyond the second weekend of this tournament once in its entire history. I mean, Georgia and South Carolina, two of the most historically inept programs in the SEC, have been to Final Fours. Yet the Vols have never broken through. And despite the injury to Zeigler, it felt like this might be the year thanks to the way the bracket opened up.

This team battled a lot. They’ve not been fully healthy since the start of February and you can’t overstate what the loss of Zeigler meant. Still though, they lost one tonight that for all intents and purposes they should have won, even without Zeigler.

Rational fans wouldn’t have grumbled if the season had ended on Saturday in the Elite Eight against a very good Kansas St. team. But the majority of fans will be grumbling heading into this offseason after bowing out to a nine seed as a four seed in the Sweet 16. But they won’t be hurting like the players and coaches themselves.

“Would I like to sit here and tell you I wish we had our full allotment of players and teams? Yeah, but we didn’t. I think it’s a real compliment to our seniors because they’re the ones that continued to stay together and didn’t get down on each other, tried to help pull the young guys along with them,” Barnes said of the adversity this team faced this year now that it’s over.

“But I feel for them because I know that’s not — when they look at it, they’re not going to be happy with it, because again, it’s hard to get here. I can only tell you we’re proud of this group of seniors and what they’ve done with our program.”

The post Tennessee’s season ends in loss to Florida Atlantic, here’s why appeared first on On3.

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