By Jimmy Hyams
The key to Tennessee’s postseason success won’t be a suffocating defense.
Or point guard Zakai Ziegler.
Or inside scoring.
Or free-throw shooting.
It will be Josiah-Jordan James.
James is the straw that stirs the drink for Rick Barnes’ team.
If you don’t believe that, you didn’t see James play Saturday night against South Carolina.
The senior wing came off the bench to score a team-high 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting (4 of 7 on 3s) and ignite Tennessee to an easier-than-expected 85-45 victory
James had missed four games in a row with an ankle injury. Tennessee lost three, although the win was an upset over No. 1 Alabama.
In those defeats, Tennessee didn’t play well on offense or defense. They lost to Missouri, which hit 14 of 26 from 3-point range. They lost at Kentucky thanks in part to woeful foul shooting. They lost at Texas A&M when the Aggies made 16 more free throws.
But when James returned against South Carolina, the Vols looked like a different team. Like the team that won at South Carolina by 43 points in January. Like the team that bludgeoned Mississippi State Jan. 3. Like the team that beat Texas less than a month ago.
The common denominator is James, the Swiss Army knife who helped keep alive UT’s hopes for a double bye in the upcoming SEC tournament in Nashville.
James, a former five-star recruit, won’t be a first-round draft pick. He won’t win any 3-point shooting contests or slam dunk competitions.
But he will win games.
His amazing performance against the Gamecocks has revived hopes that Tennessee might indeed be a postseason threat, even though Barnes’ NCAA Tournament record is only 25-26 – not impressive for a future Hall of Fame coach.
“I’ve been biting at the bit,’’ James said after UT scored two 40-plus point wins over an SEC opponent in a season for the first time since 1952-53.
“We’ve got a lot of good role players and we rely on each other on both ends (of the court).’’
James’ teammates certainly rely on him.
“He was terrific,’’ Barnes said of James. “His presence has such a major impact on our team … (it) takes a lot of pressure off the guys and gives his teammates a sense of comfort.’’
That sense of comfort led to one of UT’s best shooting games in six weeks. The Vols shot 58.1% from the field (their best since Jan. 3) and hit 43.5% on 3s (10 of 23).
More impressively they had 29 assists on 36 made baskets and just four turnovers – a low during Barnes’ eight-year tenure. The 29-4 assists-to-turnover ratio might be a school record.
Granted, South Carolina (10-19, 3-13) isn’t a very good team. But it was good enough to take No. 2 Alabama into overtime within the last week and good enough to win at Rupp Arena last month – something Tennessee couldn’t do.
James was one of eight Vols with a plus-14 in the game. Point guard Zakai Ziegler had another outstanding performance with 13 points and 11 assists to go with three steals.
“It’s so easy, it’s so fun,’’ James said of playing with Ziegler. “He’s definitely one of the best floor generals – if not the best – I’ve ever played with.’’
Tennessee also got solid performances from Jahmai Mashack (14 points, 6 rebounds) Olivier Nkamhoua (10 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) and Uros Plavsic (10 points on 5-of-5 shooting).
That’s another indication James makes his teammates better.
Tennessee is a team with solid depth. In fact, the Vols beat Kansas without James back in November.
But every team needs a leader on the court. And that leader, for Tennessee, is James.
If James plays the rest of the season like he did Saturday night, the Vols will be a tough out for Arkansas on Tuesday night or Auburn on Saturday or any team in the SEC Tournament.
They will also be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
There are no guarantees that James will play at a high level in every game the rest of this season.
But if he does, he could spark Tennessee to a much-needed NCAA postseason run that would silence Barnes’ critics and keep the Vols in the national conversation through the end of March.
And you haven’t been able to say that about a Tennessee team in more than a decade.