KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s so-called “Baby Vols” are growing up in a hurry, as evidenced by the 70-58 beatdown they put on an athletic, well-seasoned Kansas State team.
To fully appreciate Tennessee’s win on Saturday, one must take into account what the Wildcats (15-6) had done this season.
All five of Kansas State’s prior losses had come by single digits — including to No. 3-ranked Kansas (90-88) and No. 1-ranked Baylor (77-68) — until its trip to Big Orange Country to face the Vols (12-9) before a crowd of 14,398 on Saturday.
“Their only loss in this stretch is Mississippi,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said, noting the Vols have won four of five, “and they had that one for 30 minutes.”
Indeed, Tennessee has won three straight entering into next Tuesday’s pivotal game at Auburn.
Here are three reasons the Vols are playing their best basketball of the season:
Tennessee is the smallest team in the SEC, but that hasn’t stopped the Vols from crashing the glass and going after rebounds.
Freshman Grant Williams (6-5, 234) gets the most attention for his space-eating physical play in the lane, but veteran guard Robert Hubbs III has played unselfishly and hit the glass, too, averaging more than 5 rebounds each outing.
The Vols out-rebounded K-State 43-29 and gathered 16 offensive rebounds that led to a 23-6 advantage in second-chance points.
Even against mighty Kentucky last Tuesday, Tennessee won the battle of points in the paint 42-29 — something no one could have expected at the start of this season.
The Vols rank fifth in the SEC in rebounding margin in conference games despite ranking 300 out of 351 in the NCAA with an average player height of 6-foot-3.
The Vols’ point guard play is still somewhat erratic, with Jordan Bone looking like a star on one play and the true freshman that he is on the next, but Rick Barnes is managing the position effectively.
Redshirt freshman Lamonte Turner has played a vital role with his ability to handle point guard duties as well as light it up from beyond the 3-point arc.
Turner and Bone each had 5 assists in the win over Kansas State, with Turner turning it over twice and Bone once.
Barnes, however, was more impressed with the improvement each made on defense. Turner and Bone had issues against screens in past games, something they handled much better on Saturday.
Tennessee has a deep bench, and that helps in more ways than one. Playing time is a great elixir for team chemistry, with each player knowing he has the opportunity to play a key role and contribute from game to game.
On Saturday, it was Kyle Alexander’s turn, and the 6-foot-10 sophomore responded with a team-high 9 rebounds to go with 8 points.
That Tennessee has been able to recover so quickly after dismissing junior Detrick Mostella — arguably the most explosive scorer on the team — just three weeks ago, says much for the leadership within the team.
The Vols have had five different players score 20 more or more this season, four of them freshmen.
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Highlights from a wire-to-wire victory over K-State ??? pic.twitter.com/j0xJ01ez4d
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) January 28, 2017