Coach Rick Barnes knows what his once top-ranked team needs to do — or not to do.
“Too many turnovers, shot-clock violations, you name it, that led to easy baskets,” Barnes said of UT’s latest loss. “That is the learning situation. You would like to think where we are and what we have been through, we wouldn’t make those types of mistakes this time of year. But we did.”
The Vols squandered an opportunity to earn a share of a second straight SEC title Saturday by blowing an 11-point lead in an 84-80 loss at No. 22 Auburn. No. 9 LSU instead won the SEC championship outright.
Tennessee fell from No. 5 to No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25 heading into this week’s SEC tournament at Nashville.
The loss dropped Tennessee to the No. 3 seed in the SEC tournament after the Vols owned at least a share of first for virtually the entire regular season. The Vols (27-4, 15-3) have a quarterfinal matchup Friday night against No. 6 seed Mississippi State (22-9, 10-8), No. 11 seed Texas A&M (13-17, 6-12) or No. 14 seed Vanderbilt (9-22, 0-18).
Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC tournament since 1979.
After running off a school-record 19 consecutive victories, Tennessee is 4-3 in its past seven games against a backloaded schedule. Six of its final seven games were against teams projected to make the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee had won three straight before Saturday, but the Vols have fallen into some bad habits. The most notable problem is an occasional tendency to settle for 3- point shots rather than driving to the basket; the Vols hit 9 of 28 from 3-point range and 13 of 16 from the free-throw line at Auburn.
Barnes said the problem wasn’t limited to the Auburn game with the Vols taking too many 3-pointers in all their losses.
“I can’t tell you why because we keep talking about (how) we should know who we are and what we are doing,” Barnes said. “I can’t explain that. I really can’t.”
Tennessee has attempted more 3-point shots than free throws in each of its four losses but in only nine of its 27 wins. In those losses, UT has been outscored by an average margin of 9.3 points at the free-throw line.
The Vols attempted more 3-point shots than free throws in seven of their last eight games overall. During those games, Tennessee has averaged 21.8 shots from 3-point range and 14.3 free-throw attempts. Before that stretch, Tennessee had been attempting 18.4 3-point shots and 22.4 free throws per game.
Complicating matters is the fact that one of its top 3-point shooters is slumping.
Jordan Bowden broke out of his recent funk by scoring 16 points and hitting 3 of 7 attempts from 3-point range against Auburn, but Lamonte’ Turner remains in a tailspin.
Turner is 6-of-42 shooting on 3-point attempts over his last seven games, including hitting just one of his past 15 in his last three games.
Barnes said Turner is putting too much pressure on himself to make 3-pointers and is attempting difficult shots. Barnes noted that Turner shouldn’t focus on 3-point attempts and cited Tennessee’s 73-71 victory at Mississippi, when the junior guard focused on his mid-range game and scored 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting 8 of 12 overall and 1-of-4 from beyond the arc.
“He has to recognize that he’s such a better basketball player than thinking he has to make a 3,” Barnes said. “Lamonte’ Turner can affect the game in so many ways if he never made a shot. He’s become one of the best defensive guards in the country the way he can disrupt a game. The way he’s making plays for his teammates, it just gets (hardest) for him when he starts trying to make shots from behind the arc. That’s when he doesn’t play as well.”