Saturday’s game between Tennessee (17-11, 8-7 SEC) and Vanderbilt (15-12, 7-8) matches two of the least productive benches in the Southeastern Conference. Tennessee ranks 12th out of 14 SEC teams in bench scoring in league competition. Vanderbilt is dead last in that category.
Vanderbilt’s bench problems are due to the fact the Commodores have only seven healthy scholarship players. Tennessee’s troubles are tougher to explain.
Tennessee’s bench averages 8 points per game in league competition and has reached double figures in just four of its 15 conference games. The only SEC teams whose benches are averaging fewer points per game in league play are Auburn (7.9) and Vanderbilt (5.3).
The Vols remain confident they’ll get more bench production.
“That’s something we’re not worried about,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “We know our bench will step up for us.”
It hasn’t happened yet.
Tennessee’s lack of bench strength is part of the reason the Vols are 3-10 in single-digit games and 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer. In Tennessee’s 68-65 overtime loss at Texas A&M last week, the Vols’ reserves were outscored 21-2 by Texas A&M’s bench. Tennessee fell 75-70 at Missouri on Feb. 15 and was outscored 17-3 in bench points.
Tennessee could have even more trouble getting points from its bench now that senior guard Antonio Barton has returned to the starting lineup. Barton had been Tennessee’s top scorer off the bench since losing his starting spot in late January.
Barton’s return to the starting lineup moves freshman Darius Thompson back to the bench. Thompson has scored more than seven points in a game just once all season and hasn’t exceeded three points in any of his last seven games.
Tennessee’s bench troubles began about the same time the Vols announced in January that freshman forward Robert Hubbs III would undergo season-ending surgery on his left shoulder. Hubbs, a former five-star recruit, had served as Tennessee’s main scorer off the bench for the first two months of the season.
Nobody has filled that role in Hubbs’ absence.
Armani Moore started 16 games last season before moving into a bench role this year, but his career scoring average is 2.5 points per game. Derek Reese, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, provides a 3-point shot as well as height, but he lacks consistency. Freshman A.J. Davis was one of Tennessee’s top reserves during the pre-conference schedule, but he hasn’t played at all in the Vols’ last three games.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said his primary concern with the bench is making sure his reserves play hard and fulfill their particular assignment, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean scoring.
“For me, guys who are coming off the bench, if you’re a shooter, shoot,” Martin said. “If you’re a rebounder, rebound. Do what you need to do to be successful. And when you’ve got some young guys coming off the bench, just play hard. Your offense will eventually come, but don’t consume yourself with it. It’ll get there.”
Nine SEC teams are getting over 16.5 points per game from their bench in league play, led by Arkansas with 24.2. Tennessee’s bench scored 15.5 points per game in SEC competition last season.
Tennessee’s inability to get much from its bench is one reason why the Vols remain on the NCAA tournament bubble, a situation that had some fans starting an online petition to bring back former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said “it’s absolutely a joke” that Martin is facing questions about his job security and added he likes Tennessee’s postseason prospects.
“I think they’ll get in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens in this game, and I actually think they’ll do very well in the NCAA tournament,” Stallings said.
A little more production from the bench would help those chances.