What were the reasons behind the late-season slide of the Tennessee Volunteers?
Many would claim the youngsters just hit the proverbial wall and ran out of gas. Rick Barnes shot down that thinking a number of times late in the season saying he and his staff took the foot off the gas in practice to conserve the team's legs.
Others would point to the lack of consistency of Vols point guards. Barnes played as many as five at that position down the stretch and his unwillingness to allow Jordan Bone to play through mistakes drew some criticism.
Maybe the most overlooked culprit behind the poor late-season play was the fact that the Big Orange was playing a number of teams for the second time. In six games down the stretch that was the case and the Vols lost five of those. The only win was at home where the Vols overcame a 66-58 deficit with five minutes to play versus Mississippi.
Opposing defenses found the answers for the Vols in the second matchup, slowing the Big Orange's offense to a snail's pace. Tennessee failed to reach the 60-point mark in all but the Mississippi win, averaging just 63.3 points. In the first contest with those same six teams (Vanderbilt, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Georgia) Barnes saw his team average 77.3 points.
It was no secret that the Tennessee offense ran through Robert Hubbs III and Grant Williams throughout the year. The duo averaged over 30 points in the front ends of the doubleheader contests but just 21.5 on the back end. When they struggled down the stretch, the Vols offense did as well.
Barnes will need to find consistent options other than Williams if the same fortunes aren't to follow suit next season. Jordan Bowden had a solid freshman campaign, averaging 8 points a game as he was the missing piece in key losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Admiral Schofield showed a number of flashes of elite play but even he struggled with consistency in his sophomore year. Barnes will rely heavily on him becoming an every-game, dependable scorer a year from now.
The biggest concern for Barnes has been the play of point guards. "You guys have watched our guard play all year, it was inconsistent. We haven't been consistent with our offensive rhythm", said Barnes after the loss.
If the Vols are going to make it much more difficult for teams to "figure them out" then Bone has to become a player that can break defenses down, get to the free-throw line and score points late in the shot clock. There have been glimpses of that in performances at Vanderbilt, Kentucky and in the Southeastern Conference tournament but he must stay on the court with consistent play.
"We know we have it going in the right direction," Barnes said after the tourney loss to Georgia on Thursday.
His team went 15-11 in games that teams got their first look at his offense.
Those other six games cost the Vols a chance at a season that far exceeded expectations.
"We're going to get to that eventually, but again I'm excited," Barnes said. "I am looking forward to getting started right now because I know we are adding some more pieces to our program. We're going to have a different look."
If Barnes can get some more consistency from some of the pieces that showed flashes this season, 2017-18 could easily be a year in which opponents have no answers.