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Exploring the Roller Coaster That Is the 2018-19 Tennessee Volunteers

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2019

Tennessee guard Jordan Bone (0) reacts to a shot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Wade Payne/Associated Press

Tennessee is trending upward. Looking into the future, the Rick Barnes-led program should be consistently competing with Kentucky for a top position in the SEC and a fixture in the AP Top 25 poll.

Inconsistency, however, accompanies that hopeful rise right now. The peaks are spectacular, but the valleys are annoyingly low.

And the 2018-19 squad is exemplifying that complex position.

Tennessee began the campaign sixth in the AP poll, the highest preseason ranking in program history. As the calendar has flipped to March, the Vols have backed up that billing with a 26-3 record and have never left the Top 10 all season.

Grant Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, has been the superstar everyone expected. He should be an All-American this year. Led by Admiral Schofield, four other players average double figures.

In nonconference action, Tennessee toppled Louisville and handed Gonzaga one of its two losses. Including the late-January clash with West Virginia, the Vols cruised through that portion of the schedule. They finished 12-1 outside of SEC play with 10 victories of 13-plus points, with the only loss coming to Kansas in overtime in November.

That tremendous start ushered in a program-record 19-game winning streak, crushing the old mark of 15 and providing a humorous moment from Barnes after victory No. 16.

@GrantRamey @GrantRamey

Rick Barnes on Tennessee’s 16-game winning streak, which sets a new school record: “Is that a record?”

The byproduct was four straight weeks at No. 1 in the AP poll, which is especially notable because the Vols previously stood atop the AP just once ever—in the 2007-08 season.

Along the way, though, a soft schedule was reason to temper praise. After knocking off Gonzaga on Dec. 9, Tennessee didn't play another Top 25 opponent for more than two months.

That's not entirely in the Vols' control, but it's what happened. While the dominance showed during that stretch was impressive, many fans and analysts took a wait-and-see approach.

Objectively, this is one of Tennessee's best teams. Subjectively, it's in the conversation as the standard in team history. Yet nobody is suggesting the Vols are a perfect group because the flaws are apparent―and have recently started to show.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The chief issues are a lack of high-volume perimeter threats and shaky defensive rebounding, ranking 328th in three-point attempt rate and in the bottom 25 percent of defensive efficiency on the glass. That combination has already proved fatal when the competition level has risen, and it's only going to get higher.

Plus, in the latest AP poll, the only schools in the Top 15which contains a strong majority of the championship betting favorites, per Vegas Insiderwith a lower strength of schedule than Tennessee are Houston and Virginia Tech.

So, given the weaknesses and a shortage of tests, it wasn't a surprise when Kentucky earned a 17-point triumph in mid-February. Following an unimpressive offensive day at Vanderbilt, Tennessee lost to a short-handed LSU in overtime and clipped Ole Miss thanks to a last-minute recovery.

The biggest concerns were painfully evident. And with a rematch against Kentucky looming, the timing couldn't have been worse.

Naturally, the Vols demolished Kentucky.

Because of that win, Barnes' team is headed for a top-two seed in the SEC tournament. If LSU takes the regular-season crown, the Vols could encounter both Kentucky and LSU. The neutral-site matchups would offer critical insights into their NCAA upside.

At their best, they can compete with anyone. Wins over Louisville, Gonzaga (albeit slightly short-handed), a mostly healthy Kansas and Kentucky show that. That recent rout of Kentucky sure is encouraging after a disappointing two-week stretch, too.

But the let downs cannot be ignored, either.

Tennessee's superb talent can struggle to atone for tepid perimeter output. And if the Vols are inefficient on the boards, it's the perfect recipe for a close margin. To this point, their only stretches of tight finishes happened in December and Februaryand the more recent results weren't consistently encouraging.

The future in Knoxville is tremendously bright. Right now, though, it means wondering which Tennessee team shows up when the competition is toughest.

            

All recruiting information via 247Sports. All statistics courtesy of KenPom or Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.