Dan Fleser: Vols Make It To #2

  • Monday, January 30, 2023
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Tennessee ascended to No. 1 in men’s basketball twice last week.

First, the Vols were tabbed as a No. 1 seed in the latest NCAA tournament projections by ESPN’s Joe Linardi. Then, they moved to the top spot in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, which slots each NCAA team based on their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies per 100 possessions. Tennessee has been No. 1 in his adjusted defensive efficiency ratings now for the past 10 weeks. The Vols have moved up to No. 33 in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Along with the tournament speculation and numbers crunching came Saturday’s 82-71 victory over Texas at Thompson-Boling Arena in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The outcome, along with some other noteworthy men’s hoops results, did not confer a third No. 1. But it was close. The Vols moved up two spots Monday to No. 2 in the Associated Press’ weekly top 25 poll.

While these lofty distinctions ought to be savored, they also need a calendar adjustment for a proper perspective. February 1 doesn’t arrive until Wednesday. The real NCAA bracket won’t be out for nearly six weeks. There’s a lot of possessions still to be played.

“Right now, I love this team,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after Saturday’s victory. “We’ve got a chance to be as good as we want to be. I think that’s up to one thing. Are we tough enough to embrace the daily grind? Not worry about going to the Final Four, not worry about the NCAA tournament. But can we build a team that can be successful that time of year? It starts with truly embracing the grind every single day and it’s tough because we’ve been at it a long time (already)

“Can you knock out the noise around you? Can you let whatever is out there, the noise, talk about it and just be able to come to work?    

Barnes watched his team methodically amass a 22-point lead against the Longhorns. And then he watched his team go nearly four minutes of the second half without making a shot from the floor as that 22-point lead shrank to 13. So, the 40 minutes supplied plenty to love but also some work to do.

Between now and March Madness, the Vols would be best served by maintaining their defensive efficiency, which puts a greater premium on effort. In Barnes’ estimation, the Vols’ transition defense wasn’t great against Texas and they gave up some 3-pointers when they were switching on assignments. 

“I think the key is we’ve got individuals that want to be good defensive players,” Barnes said, and we’ve got individuals that can not only guard the basketball consistently well, but also can help their teammates.”

Offensive improvement always will be a trickier objective. That said, what can be learned from senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua’s career-high 27 points against Texas? He hadn’t scored more than eight points in any of the previous five games, which followed two games in which he made 15 consecutive shots from the field.

You could get vertigo from such fluctuations. Or you could keep working your way through the ups and downs. Barnes said Nkamhoua had the best practice of his UT career on Friday and the energy carried over.

So, that daily grind paid off. Is that the lesson? 


Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

Top 20 In The Hunt For UCRA $7,500 Championship: Rookie Hughes Leads
Top 20 In The Hunt For UCRA $7,500 Championship: Rookie Hughes Leads
  • 4/1/2023

Rookie United Championship Racing Alliance competitor Jesse Hughes of Crossville, Al. leads the current points standings after the first two events of the 2023 championship season. The 44-year-old ... more

Clay Gets 1 More Crack In College Uniform
  • 4/1/2023

Former McCallie star and Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State graduate player Jr. Clay will get a chance to put on the college uniform one last time as he will play in the second annual HBCU all-star ... more

Lee Lacrosse Comes Back But Loses 13-11
  • 3/31/2023

A furious fourth quarter comeback came up just short on Friday evening as the Lee women's lacrosse team fell, 13-11 in a road non-conference battle with Limestone. The Lady Flames outscored ... more