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.

VIDEO: Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton jumped out of a plane

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Don’t worry.

He was skydiving.

USC adds to top 2019 class with four-star recruit Kyle Sturdivant

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Andy Enfield’s 2019 recruiting haul already includes two five-star, top-20 recruits along with a pair of additional four-star prospects in the top-100. It’s good enough, right now, for USC to own the best class in the country.

And on Thursday, the Trojans added to it.

Kyle Sturdivant, a top-100 recruit out of Georgia, has committed to the Trojans.

The 6-foot-3 point guard previously committed to his home-state Bulldogs and new coach Tom Crean, but backed off that pledge last month. He also had offers from Cal, Clemson, Auburn and Florida, among others.

Sturdivant put up 16.2 points, 5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game last season while playing alongside top-five recruit Vernon Carey on Team Takeover Florida.

His commitment gives Enfield a point guard in an already loaded class. The Trojans previously received commitments from five-stars Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu and four-stars Max Agbonkpolo and Drake London, giving them the consensus top class in the country this fall.

The Trojans’ continued success keeps the trend alive of schools who were caught up in the FBI corruption investigation simply shaking it off and landing more top talent.

The kings stay the kings.

Top junior college transfer Chris Duarte commits to Oregon

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Dana Altman and Oregon have reached into the junior college ranks to pick up their first commitment in the 2019 class.

Chris Duarte, a top juco from Northwest Florida State, committed to the Ducks on Thursday, it was announced.

“NWF State helped me grow as a player on and off the court,” Duarte said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the staff who has helped me become the player I need to be to play at a Division I program like Oregon. I’m very excited and thankful for this opportunity.”

In his freshman season at Northwest Florida State, the 6-foot-6 former 2017 Western Kentucky signee averaged 12.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2 steals per game en route to all-conference honors as the Raiders won a state championship and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NJCAA tournament.

“Chris is an outstanding student-athlete who represents Northwest Florida State well,” Northwest Florida State coach Steve DeMeo said in a statement. “The University of Oregon is the best decision for him and I am excited to see what his future holds as he finishes up his career as a Raider and heads to Eugene to play at the next level.”

Duarte will play for the Raiders this upcoming season and then will have two years of eligibility remaining with the Ducks. He is considered one of, if not the, top junior college player in the country.

Oklahoma lands commitment from four-star prospect Jalen Hill

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Lon Kruger continues to assemble a monster 2019 recruiting class.

The Sooners received a commitment Thursday from Jalen Hill, a four-star wing from Las Vegas, to bolster a group that already is among the best in the country.

Hill chose the Sooners after visiting earlier this month. He had also visited TCU and had trips scheduled to DePaul and St. John’s. He also sported offers from Oregon, Arizona and Illinois. The 6-foot-7 small forward announced his decision at his school Thursday.

“I thought that it was just the best fit for me,” Hill told Rivals. “The the players over there are great and I just loved the coaching staff, really. They let you rock over there and let you be you.”In terms of everything else, they didn’t have a lot of wings coming back at that position. They compared me to Buddy Hield a little and said they might use me as a shooting guard and as a small forward.”

Hill averaged 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists in the EYBL with the Las Vegas Prospects. He’s the latest edition to Oklahoma’s 2019 class that already includes two top-100 prospects. De’Vion Harmon, a top-50 point guard from Texas, committed to Kruger and Co. last November while Victor Iwuaker, a top-100 forward also from Texas, pledged earlier this month. It’s a consensus top-10 class.

It’s hard to call Kruger underrated given the success he’s had in the college ranks and his stint in the NBA, but even with that recent Final Four run and the Trae Young Experience last year, the Oklahoma coach rarely seems to get his due as one of the top coaches in the country. He keeps winning – both on the floor and the recruiting trail.

Gonzaga lands commitment from top Lithuanian prospect

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Gonzaga has landed their third commitment in the Class of 2019, as Martynas Arlauskas, a 6-foot-6 Lithuanian wing, announced that he will be heading to Spokane for college instead of signing a professional contract.

Arlauskas ranks 42nd in the Class of 2019, according to 247 Sports, although he does not show up in their composite rankings; not even recruiting outlet ranks foreign prospects in their top 100. He spent last season played with the second division team from BC Zalgiris, one of the biggest clubs in Lithuania. He averaged 5.2 points as an 18-year old.

The last player Gonzaga recruited from Lithuania was Domantas Sabonis.

A skilled perimeter that is at his best playing on the wing, Arlauskas is the third member of Gonzaga’s 2019 recruiting class, joining Anton Watson, a top 50 prospect from Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, and three-star guard Brock Ravet.