KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes continues searching for the right combinations to put on the floor even as his team remains in the Top 25 and moves closer to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.
The shuffling was particularly evident Saturday in Tennessee’s 70-63 victory at South Carolina as Lamonte’ Turner and Derrick Walker delivered notable performances off the bench and Yves Pons made a surprise appearance.
“We’re going to use all our guys,” Barnes said. “Some nights, it might be this guy or that guy getting the call. The next game, it might be someone else.”
The unsettled rotation hasn’t bothered the 22nd-ranked Volunteers.
Tennessee (13-5, 4-3 SEC) has won four of its last five games heading into a home matchup Tuesday with Vanderbilt (7-12, 2-5) as the Vols seek a regular-season sweep of their in-state rival. Tennessee rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to win 92-84 at Vanderbilt on Jan. 9.
The Vols have received reliable production from forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, who combined for 59 points in the first Vanderbilt game.
“Williams obviously controlled the game, him and Schofield,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “We’re going to have to try and do something to try and neutralize them better.”
Williams scored 37 points against Vanderbilt and is averaging 16.4 points to rank fifth in the SEC . Schofield had 22 against Vanderbilt and has scored in double figures in 13 consecutive games.
Tennessee hasn’t gotten that kind of consistency from anyone else.
“I think we’re at our best when we have great balance in scoring, as opposed to Grant Williams getting 30-some points,” Barnes said.
The streakiness is most apparent in the backcourt.
Starting point guard Jordan Bone averages 8.2 points, but he’s scored a total of three points over Tennessee’s last two games. Jordan Bowden averages 9.8 points as the Vols’ starting shooting guard, but he went scoreless against South Carolina and had just two points last week in a 59-55 loss at Missouri .
Tennessee’s bench picked up the slack against South Carolina. Turner had 25 points against the Gamecocks to match his career high. Walker, a freshman forward, shot 5 of 5 and had 10 points to double his previous career high. Yves Pons, another freshman forward, had 12 minutes of action against South Carolina after not playing at all for six straight games.
Turner’s production reflects the up-and-down progress of Tennessee’s guards. He has scored at least 24 points three times this season but has reached double figures just four times in his last 11 games. Barnes says Turner is at his best when he concentrates on defense and rebounding rather than worrying so much about scoring.
“Every time he has a big scoring game, he comes out and thinks that’s what he has to do every game and he ends up getting himself back on the bench,” Barnes said. “I’d say this is true of all of our guards or all of our players – when they’re locked into what they need to do on the defensive end, the offense will take care of itself.”
Barnes said that “something drastic would have to happen” for him to make a change in the starting lineup at point guard, but he isn’t shy about making other changes in regard to playing time. He showed that Saturday when Walker and Pons had increased roles at the expense of John Fulkerson, who averages 10.9 minutes but didn’t play at all against South Carolina.
Tennessee’s bench performance against South Carolina was an encouraging sign for a team that perhaps relied too much on its top players the last couple of seasons.
The Vols couldn’t recover two years ago when leading scorer Kevin Punter Jr. had a season-ending injury . Tennessee also struggled down the stretch last season when top scorer Robert Hubbs III played hurt , limiting his effectiveness.
This season, the Vols may have the depth to withstand that type of adversity.
“We want these guys realizing every day is an opportunity and a chance to get getter,” Barnes said, “and we hope they’ll take advantage of it.”
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