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.

Washington’s Thybulle returning for senior season

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Matisse Thybulle will return to Washington for his senior season after contemplating declaring for the NBA draft following a junior campaign in which he was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“The NBA is really enticing and it was definitely something that I seriously considered when the season was over,” Thybulle told the Seattle Times. “I talked it over with my family and we came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to stay and get my degree (in communications) and grow as a basketball player and take this last year to mature and fine tune everything so I can be fully prepared to take that next step when it’s time.”

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.

“I talked to coach (Mike Hopkins) and he gave me some good advice that was honestly something that helped in the grand scheme of things,” Thybulle said. “He told me that if I do it (enter the draft), then I should be all in because that’s what I’m going to be up against is a whole bunch of guys fighting for their lives. He thought it would be a better idea for me to stay in school until I’m at that point.”

Washington is awaiting the decision of Noah Dickerson, who declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. The 6-foot-8 averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?