Simply put, Tennessee’s first half against the Rams is a video head coach Donnie Tyndall should use to show future teams how not to play the game. The Vols shot just 41.7 percent (10 of 24) from the floor, 12.5 percent (1 of 8) from 3-point range and 45 percent (9 of 20) from the foul line. They recorded twice as many turnovers (14) as assists (7) and allowed VCU to convert those turnovers into 22 points. Tennessee also got killed on the offensive glass en route to losing the first-half backboard battle 25-21 and falling behind 38-20 on the scoreboard.
Humiliated by their Game 1 performance, several Vols are angry as the home opener approaches. The fact Tennessee rallied in the final 20 minutes against VCU to make the final score respectable provides very little consolation.
“It makes me mad, more so than anything, because we showed we can compete, and we should’ve done that the first half,” freshman forward Jabari McGhee said. “It would’ve been a whole different game.”
Asked if his teammates are equally upset about the slipshod Game 1 performance, McGhee nodded and replied: “Yeah, but we’ve got nobody to be mad at but ourselves. We’re the ones playing.”
Tennessee played a good second half against VCU, whittling a 20-point deficit to eight on several occasions. The Vols had a chance to win until star player Josh Richardson fouled out with 3:50 remaining. Ultimately, the horrendous first-half performance doomed the Big Orange.
“You can’t play for 20 minutes,” McGhee grumbled. “You’ve got to play 40.”
So, which is the real Tennessee team – the one that was blitzed 38-20 in the first half or the one that outscored VCU 49-47 in the second half?
“A little bit of both,” Tyndall said. “Obviously, the first half was ugly – way too many turnovers. The second half I thought we relaxed and did a better job taking care of the basketball. We were more in attack mode, getting the ball into the paint and getting some easier opportunities at the rim. You’re going to turn it over some against VCU. They’re really good – a top 10-type team – and that’s what they do to everybody.”
As usual, Tennessee’s success this season will depend heavily on its development at the point-guard position. Richardson, the starting small forward in 2013-14, is trying to fill the lead-guard role this year. He took some lumps in the opener, recording 7 turnovers and just 2 assists. Conversely, Kevin Punter flipped those numbers while splitting time between the point and off guard – registering 7 assists and just 2 turnovers. Those numbers may be misleading, however.
“It’s really hard to evaluate any point guard in that game because they (VCU Rams) are going to press you 94 feet, they’re going to speed you up,” Tyndall told InsideTennessee. “You never get into your halfcourt offense. Josh, I thought, played well. He had seven turnovers but that’s what VCU does. I think Josh is getting better and better at that position. Kevin had 7 assists and 2 turnovers, which is really good.”
Punter averaged 20 points per game and shot a spectacular 57 percent from the field in junior college last season, yet he’ll spend this season splitting time between the point and the wing. That’s fine with him.
“I love to score the ball; don’t get me wrong: That’s what I do best,” he said. “But I know how to play with my great teammates. If I’m not scoring the ball, I do other things to help the team win. A lot of dudes were open, and I felt I was playing more of the point-guard role last game and I was creating for others.”
Ultimately, Tyndall is reasonably satisfied with the point-guard outlook.
“It’s a work in progress,” the coach said. “We’ve said that from Day One: We don’t expect Josh to be (NBA star) Chris Paul tomorrow. It’s going to take time, and he’s getting better every day.”
Actually, Richardson is getting better every half. After struggling mightily in the first 20 minutes against VCU he settled down the final 20 minutes. So did his teammates. As a result, Tennessee reduced its turnover count from 14 in the first half to 5 in the second.
So, what changed?
“Just staying poised, being sharp with your passes, stepping through, being a little smarter with the ball,” Punter told InsideTennessee. “Nothing drastic. We knew what we had to do coming in, and that’s what we had to stick to.”
Although discouraged by the sloppiness they displayed in the first half of the opener, the Vols are encouraged by the grit they showed in the second half.
“We will never quit,” Punter noted. “We was down 20 and we cut it to eight. One thing about us – one thing about Coach – we will never quit. No matter how much we’re losing by or winning by, we’re going to keep the pressure on.”
GAME NOTES: Texas Southern, like Tennessee, made the NCAA Tournament last March as one of the “first four” and played its Round 1 game at Dayton, Ohio. The Tigers lost to Cal Poly, whereas the Vols beat Iowa, then won two more games to reach the Sweet 16…. Tennessee has won 22 home openers in a row and stands 24-2 in them at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tyndall was 2-0 in home openers at Southern Miss…. Texas Southern is coached by Mike Davis, who played for Alabama and previously served as head coach at Indiana and UAB…. This is the first meeting between the Vols and the Tigers, who compete in the Southwest Athletics Conference…. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock with TV coverage provided by Fox Sports Network…. This will be Tennessee’s only home game in the month of November. The Vols are idle for a week before participating in the Orlando Classic Nov. 27-30.