December 11, 2022
Tumultuous Tennessee: where the Vols go from here
According to Coach Harper, the Vols need an identity
Before the NCAA season began, Tennessee sat atop national and SEC rankings, ranked No. 5 in the nation by AP, No. 3 by The Next, and unanimously No. 2 in the SEC among media and coaches. But since their season began on Nov. 8, the Vols have steadily plummeted.
As of now, the Vols are unranked nationally with a 5-5 record. So, what happened?
The Vols opened their season with a matchup against Ohio State, who now stands at No. 3 in the county, and to Tennessee’s credit, was the only earnest SEC opening matchup.
They lost the game 87-75 in a second-half breakdown, largely due to poor defensive effort. Tennessee turned over the ball 29 times, compared to Ohio State’s 15, and were out-stolen by the Buckeyes, 4-16.
Since then, Tennessee has also lost to Indiana, UCLA, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech, all ranked teams. The Vols have played arguably the most challenging schedule in the country, which can chalk up some of their struggles.
“Our schedule has obviously punched us in the face,” Head Coach Kellie Harper told The Next.
Unlike so many teams across college basketball, Tennessee came into this season retaining their core. In addition, they brought on four highly experienced transfers and two freshmen. And although one could chalk up their struggles to six new players on the floor, that level of influx is standard nowadays.
The light on the horizon for the Vols in their first eight games was Mississippi State transfer Rickea Jackson, who leads the team in points and rebounds per game, averaging 17.6 and 6.6, respectively.
Among a sea of transfers, Jackson seemed immensely valuable for Tennessee; however, Jackson didn’t play in the team’s Dec. 4 loss against Virginia Tech, prompting questions from media postgame.
“I think everybody has to step up,” Harper said. “We are trying to help that, also with some play-calling and putting our players in positions to be successful and take advantage of matchups in certain situations.”
Harper explained Jackson would be out indefinitely and provided no update to The Next on Wednesday.
Jackson responded on Twitter, telling fans, “Don’t believe everything you hear in the media.” Her relationship with the team appears to still be positive.
In addition, the team announced Thursday that senior center Tamari Key would be out for the remainder of the season due to blood clots found in her lungs. Key leads the team in blocks and provides the foundation of much of the team’s on-ball defense.
In addition, the team was without star guard Jordan Horston for a game and a half and without Jasmine Franklin and Jillian Hollingshead for a game apiece due to concussion protocols.
Although Horston, Franklin and Hollingshead are back, with the indefinite absence of Jackson and the season-ender for Key, Tennessee may be in free fall. But as Tennessee suits up for a West Coast trip to play No. 2 Stanford next week and with conference play right around the corner, Harper appears to have a plan.
Harper’s rebuild blueprint
To begin, Harper and fans hope the Vols’ rigorous schedule will set them up nicely for the conference season.
“Going into the season I knew it was going to be really difficult, and I didn’t know if it would be too much. Right now, it’s obviously been a lot,” Harper said. “I think the best assessment comes at the end of the year: did we reach our potential as a basketball team? … Was it too much to put on a team that essentially had six new players?”
Harper offered the personnel turnover as a key reason for the season’s up and down, explaining they still have quite a few chemistry and fluidity issues to figure out.
“We [need to] understand not only the team schemes, but each other and what we need to do,” Harper said. “I do think that the games that we’ve played have been brutally honest, in terms of where we are and where we need to go.”
Harper explained that the non-stop nature of their schedule hadn’t allowed the team much time to adjust. According to the Vols’ leader, the team wasn’t able to spend significant out-of-game time adjusting until after their Nov. 25 Colorado. In Harper’s eyes, her team has improved since then, particularly in stepping up their defensive game.
However, they may have corrected their defensive game too much. Their only serious matchup since Colorado was against now-seventh-ranked Virginia Tech, in which they narrowly lost without Jackson, Hollingshead, or Franklin. But for anyone who likes offense, this game was difficult to watch.
Although she felt the Tech game showed improvement, Harper cited rebounding as a place the team needs to continue to work at, where Tennessee’s identity has laid over the past few years. And her players agree.
“We just got to work on the little things and once we do good on defense and capitalize on defense it will lead to our offense,” Hollingshead said in an SEC Network television interview.
Harper promised hard practices, making sure that her team brings their full effort and develops an adverse, positive mindset.
But potentially, most importantly, Harper argues that this team needs an identity.
“I don’t know that we’ve had an identity. And I think as a basketball team to be successful you’ve got to have something that defines you,” Harper said. “In the next week and a half I think we’ve got an opportunity to define who we are. You get an opportunity to go and compete at Stanford, you gotta look at it as an opportunity.”
Looking at their matchup today, their Nov. 18 trip out west, and their upcoming schedule in an ever-competitive SEC, Tennessee is in for an uphill battle, especially if they’re out with Jackson.
However, if the team can keep their players on the floor and find that identity, they may find themselves back in the national rankings and having a shot at a competitive SEC and NCAA tournament.