Tennessee dropped its season opener 82-69 to Chattanooga on Friday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Even in defeat there were some bright spots for coach Rick Barnes’ squad.
“We got beat by a good team tonight; they beat us,” Barnes said.
Six Vols newcomers made their debuts, including point guard Jordan Bone, who led Tennessee with 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting.
Many will point at this loss as a signal of how far Tennessee has fallen but that wouldn't be giving nearly enough credit for the visitors. The Mocs are a seasoned, veteran bunch returning four of their five starters from a team that went 29-6 and to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re going to be OK,” Barnes said. “We played a team in midseason form.
“These first two weeks of the season are going to be great for us.”
The glaring difference in the two teams was physicality. The elder Mocs wore down the Volunteers and pulled away late after Tennessee cut its deficit to six after a Robert Hubbs III dunk with 7:15 left in the game.
“Was really really proud of how our team played tonight and handled the adversity in the game in a terrific environment,” Chattanooga coach Matt McCall said.
Bone, Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams were the Vols’ brightest spots. Bone must do more to make his team perform better. The Nashville native tallied just one assist in 31 minutes of action, however, he had just two turnovers and made all four free throws.
Alexander, who’s only in his fourth year playing organized basketball, totaled four blocks, which was more than Chattanooga’s entire team. The Canadian added eight points and seven rebounds, too.
Williams was a bucket shy of a double-double, registering eight points with 10 rebounds. Six of his boards were on the offensive glass.
Defensively the Vols played a solid first half where the ball pressure bothered the Mocs greatly. Tennessee raced out to a 17-10 lead in the early going.
The Vols won the rebound battle 42-36 but over half of Chattanooga’s points came in the paint (42).
“We’re not recreating last year,” McCall said. “This is a new season. There are going to be new challenges.
“They’re really approached this thing the right way and haven’t gotten complacent.”
The negatives were painfully obvious for Barnes’ squad. They turned to ball over 19 times and only had four assists. The half-court offense became flat-footed for much of the second half and high-percentage shots were hard to come by other than Bone’s getting to the paint with dribble penetration.
The assist total would have been more respectable if the Vols had been able to make any shots. Making just 1 of 16 from 3-point range and only 32.8 percent overall from the floor makes winning against any team difficult, much less against one as good as Chattanooga.
Tennessee’s half-court defense also struggled the second half with keeping the Mocs out of the lane on the dribble drive. Chattanooga was able to drive countless times through the lane and find open options that were plenty able to make the Vols pay for not keeping the ball in front of them on the perimeter. McCall’s squad shot 58.6 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes after carrying a 34-29 upper hand into the break.
To say this game is an indicator of the direction of this season and beyond would be a mistake. The Mocs are a team that have a real shot to win 30 games. That coupled with a Tennessee team that is inexperienced and shot the ball extremely poorly was a bad combination. However, this team has some positive things to build on but with a tough schedule looming they better learn quickly.
Lew Evans is thought to bring veteran leadership to the court for Tennessee but the graduate transfer from Utah State logged just one minute Friday night. Barnes said Evans hasn’t shown the ability to rebound that the staff desires and must digest his role.
Tennessee freshman point guard Kwe Parker did not dress and his left foot was in a walking boot. Barnes said the former Scout three-star prospect reported the leg started hurting him Wednesday.