#11 Tennessee 63, #25 Texas A&M 68

The month of February has been awful for Tennessee basketball. Whether it's a dismal shooting percentage or a veteran failing to extend a late lead from the free-throw line, back-to-back buzzer beaters, or complete inability to get to the free-throw line, inability to make shots at the line, and propensity to put their opponent on the line, UT seemingly finds new and innovative ways to lose games on a weekly basis. 

So here we are, 2-5 in February with two games yet to be played (both home, South Carolina on Saturday and then a senior night game against Arkansas on Tuesday). This team keeps fighting. The effort is there every night. They work really hard (...so do washing machines). But the losses keep coming. So what is happening? 

Understand--and I think this is being lost on a large portion of Tennessee's fan base--Rick Barnes is not putting the team he wants on the floor each night. Here are the starting lineups that UT has used this year, along with each lineup's record: 

8 Starting Lineups Table
G W L W-L%  
12102.833T. Key · O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · U. Plavsic · S. Vescovi
642.667J. James · O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · S. Vescovi · Z. Zeigler
312.333J. Aidoo · J. Mashack · O. Nkamhoua · S. Vescovi · Z. Zeigler
2201.000T. Key · J. Mashack · O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · U. Plavsic
211.500O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · U. Plavsic · S. Vescovi · Z. Zeigler
1101.000J. James · O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · U. Plavsic · Z. Zeigler
101.000J. Aidoo · O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · S. Vescovi · Z. Zeigler
1101.000J. James · T. Key · O. Nkamhoua · J. Phillips · S. Vescovi
Provided by CBB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 2/22/2023.

Notice how Tennessee is 19-5 (.791) in games where at least one of Josiah-Jordan James and/or Julian Phillips is starting, but just 1-2 when neither starts. JJJ and Phillips are both sidelined and listed day-to-day (but aren't we all). UT will be lifted greatly if/when one or both are back.

Also notice that Tennessee is 13-2 (.866) in games where Zakai Zeigler comes off the bench. This is no slam at ZZ. He's at his best as a sparkplug 6th man--in fact he excels at it. It's an important piece on Rick Barnes' teams, too; remember how good Lamonte Turner was in a similar role, and how Turner also tended to struggle when asked to be a starter. Jahmai Mashack and BJ Edwards should be giving Tennessee more at the guard position to take pressure off of Zakai. But despite flashes of brilliance from Mashack, he hasn't been able to consistently rise to the level needed, and Edwards has looked lost in limited minutes this season. 

With three games and the postseason ahead, what do we do with this information? I say, enjoy what you can of it. This team has kinda established what they are at this point. They can beat anybody (Kansas, Texas, Alabama for example). They can also lose to just about anybody and in dumfounding fashion.  They're a lot better at home than on the road. I'll go ahead and give spoilers for the next two preview posts: I'm picking the Vols to beat both South Carolina and Arkansas on senior night. Auburn is a toss up. Tennessee will likely be the four seed in Nashville for the SEC Tournament and they might win the whole thing or they might lose on Friday. Same with March Madness. Watch for JJJ and Phillips to come back and then hope this team has one more run like they had in December & January.


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