Time will tell how shrewd it was for Tennessee to open its season on the road at Xavier rather than easing into that tough assignment with home games against USC Upstate and The Citadel.
That the Vols lost wasn’t all that surprising. The Musketeers, who made the jump from the Atlantic 10 to the new Big East, had long ago transcended the “mid-major” label and deserved their spot alongside traditional basketball powers Georgetown, Marquette. They also had a game behind them, having blown out Gardner-Webb last Friday.
What was surprising was how easy pickings the Vols were, easier than the final score of 67-63 would indicate. If the intention for scheduling Xavier so early in the season was to reveal weaknesses, that mission was accomplished. And if those weaknesses are shored up, the trip will have been worth the effort.
Here are a couple of takeaways from the game:
• Free-throw shooting needs work. The Vols were 7 of 19 from the line, a dismal 36.8 percent. It could be argued that the right people weren’t shooting them—junior college transfer Pops Nidiaye was 0 for 3 and freshmen Darius Thompson and A.J.
Davis were a combined 0 for 3—but senior Jeronne Maymon was 1 for 4 and even Jordan McRae missed a couple.
In a four-point loss, missing 12 free throws in 19 attempts is an easy first place to start looking for across-the-board improvement.
“We need to think about making free throws,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We have to spend more time making free throws.”
• Defense, supposedly the calling card of a team billing itself a “Tougher Breed,” needs work. True enough, junior post Jarnell Stokes was in foul trouble most of the game and eventually fouled out. Xavier’s 6-10, 263-pound Matt Stainbrook, a transfer from Western Michigan who was playing in just his second game, is a good player, but some of the baskets he scored were just too easy.
Part of the reason for that was Xavier’s dribble penetration. More on that later.
• The Vols are going to get perimeter shots this season. No team Tennessee plays is going to allow Stokes to have his way in the post. Opponents will pack their defenders in the paint, as Xavier did, and dare Tennessee to beat them from the perimeter.
The good news is all that work Josh Richardson put in during the offseason on his 3-point stroke seems to have paid off. He made 3 of 4 shots from behind the arc and looked good—and confident—doing it.
And newcomer Antonio Barton, playing his first game after missing the exhibition games with an ankle injury, did the same thing he did for three years at Memphis. The 42-percent career 3 shooter made 2 of 4 from behind the arc.
Freshman Robert Hubbs had a rough debut, missing both his 3-pointers and struggling defensively, but if he can live up to his reputation and offer another perimeter threat, the Vols will have at least four players (McRae is the other) capable of making 3s.
• Barton offers more good news. He was able to at least slow down Musketeer guard Semaj Christon, whose penetration set up easy baskets. In addition to his shooting prowess, Barton came to Knoxville with the reputation of being a good on-ball defender.
Martin would take Barton’s first-game numbers all season: 10 points, four assists, one turnover. Barton didn’t start against Xavier in favor of freshman Darius Thompson, but he wound up playing 30 minutes. He’ll be a 30-plus guy the rest of the season.