Regardless of coach, Tennessee is a flawed basketball team

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Bruce Pearl’s return to the Tennessee bench didn’t go quite as he would have liked.

His Vols came out sluggish at the start of both halves. While they were able to get a 19 point lead down to five early in the second half, No. 18 Kentucky responded with a 13-0 run of their own and Tennessee never got closer than ten points the rest of the way en route to a 73-61 loss.

The loss drops Tennessee into a second place tie with Kentucky and Georgia in the SEC East, a full two games behind No. 19 Florida.

Frankly, there wasn’t much Pearl was going to be able do tonight.

Kentucky was coming off of back-to-back close losses on the road, something that doesn’t go over well in Big Blue Nation. With a rival coming to town for a game televised on ESPN, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Kentucky was going to come out of the gates fired up.

And the Vols didn’t do a terrible job weathering the storm. In fact, they were able to turn a blowout into a game.

After Josh Harrellson scored at the rim with 5:49 left in the half, Tennessee found themselves down 33-14. The Wildcats didn’t get another field goal the rest of the half, managing just two DeAndre Liggins free throws as the Vols reeled off a 14-2 run to get within seven at intermission and right back into the game.

Melvin Goins scored the first basket of the second half, and all of a sudden Tennessee was down just five point with an entire half to play.

But that is when Tennessee’s achilles heel reared its ugly head.

The Vol’s biggest issue this season has nothing to do with their talent level. In terms of raw ability and potential, there are not many duos that can compare to Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris.

The problem is toughness and leadership.

Tennessee was pushed around inside by Kentucky’s big men. John Fields was a non-factor after picking up a couple blocked shots on the first possession of the game. Tobias Harris finished with ten points, but most of those came without the outcome no longer in doubt. He also finished with just two rebounds while Terrence Jones grabbed 11, five coming on the offensive end of the floor. Brian Williams didn’t play poorly — eight points, nine boards, five offensive — but, like Harris, those numbers were padded by some late-game possessions. He also allowed Josh Harrellson to go for 16 points and six boards, including a number of momentum-shifting offensive rebounds and hustle plays.

And there in lies Tennessee’s problems.

It wasn’t that they were outclassed by Kentucky. In fact, Tennessee did a pretty good job slowing down the Wildcat’s big three. Jones, Brandon Knight, and Doron Lamb combined for just 31 points on 9-25 shooting. Jones had half of Kentucky’s 16 turnovers himself.

But it seemed like all of their points were important buckets. Lamb and Jones were instrumental in building a 33-14 lead. Knight made four key plays — a tough driving layup, a deep three, and back-to-back assists to Harrellson for layups — that push Kentucky’s lead back to 51-33 midway through the second half.

Tennessee doesn’t have a stopper. Kentucky made a big run in each half, and Tennessee had no one willing to step up and answer. Hopson and Harris are supposed to be the Vol’s go-to guys, but they were no where to be found when Tennessee needed someone to make a play to stop the bleeding. Instead, the ball too often ended up in the hands of Melvin Goins. Goins is a solid point guard, but he’s more of a defensive playmaker than a guy you want facilitating your offense.

Kentucky also seemed to get every loose ball and make every hustle play. The key stretch of this game came right after Goins’ jumper cut Kentucky’s lead to 35-30 early in the second half. Twice, on one possession, Kentucky got an offensive rebound off of a free throw. After Goins missed a layup in transition, Kentucky went the other way and drew a foul on a fast break. On the ensuing possession, Harris missed a jumper early in the shot clock. At the other end, Knight came up with an offensive rebound on a missed three and scored on a layup. Tennessee’s next possession resulted in a lazy pass by Goins that led to a dunk from Deandre Liggins. (It should be noted that Liggins played one of his best games in a Kentucky uniform. He had 19 points, five rebounds, five steals, and three assists, shot 5-6 from the floor and 7-8 from the line, and played terrific defense on Hopson.)

All of a sudden a five point game turned into a thirteen point game and Bruce Pearl had to burn a timeout. A minute later, after Knight’s three pointer and two assists to Harrellson pushed the lead to 18, Pearl used another timeout and the outcome was all-but decided.

There isn’t all that much that Pearl could have done. No matter the coaching, no matter the teaching, no matter the influence from the sideline, if you don’t have players willing to make the effort plays or capable of making the big shot, its going to show through it critical moments.

Think about it like this — you can give Lady Gaga the best musical production team and publicist on the planet. You can give her a makeover and construct her public persona. But at the end of the day, she’s still a terrible singer with more nose than musical talent.

The same can be said for Tennessee.

The Vols are a team that is missing something. Call it what you want — leadership, toughness, decision-making, whatever — Tennessee is flawed.

And regardless of who is roaming their sideline, at the end of the day, the onus has to fall on the players.

Not the man in the orange blazer.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.