Josiah-Jordan James: 'We've underperformed heavily in our eyes'
Tennessee basketball started the season with four goals. The Vols wanted to win the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. They wanted to win an SEC regular-season championship. They wanted to repeat as SEC Tournament champions. And they wanted to win a national championship.
Tennessee beat Butler, USC and Kansas over the course of three days in November to win the Atlantis title.
“We did that,” Josiah-Jordan James told the Big Orange Tip-Off Club on Wednesday.
The Vols are mathematically eliminated from winning the SEC’s regular-season title, sitting five games back of first-place Alabama with three games to play.
“We can’t do that,” James said.
Winning a second straight SEC Tournament is still on the table.
“We still are able to do that,” James said.
And so is a national championship.
“So three out of the four goals that we set in place are still attainable,” James concluded. “It’s just about our response.”
Tennessee (20-8, 9-6 SEC) needs a bigger and bigger response with each passing day. The Vols, after the 68-63 loss at Texas A&M on Tuesday, have dropped five of their last seven games.
James has missed the last four games after suffering a sprained left ankle in the loss at Vanderbilt on February 8. Freshman Julian Phillips has missed three games with a hip flexor after trying to play through the injury — it happened in practice on February 10 — in the loss to Missouri on February 11.
‘Our backs are against the wall’: Vols ‘at a crossroads’ with five losses in last seven games
James said on Wednesday that “barring any setbacks” he’s eyeing to return against South Carolina (10-18, 3-12) on Saturday (6 p.m. Eastern Time; SEC Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena. There’s a chance Phillips could return, too, after being listed as a game-time decision and going through pregame warmups at Texas A&M.
But with just three games left on schedule, James and his fellow seniors — Santiago Vescovi, Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic — know the clock is ticking.
“It’s really tough because this is our last go round,” James said, “but the season is far from over. You run into a little adversity, it’s how you’re going to respond. Do you splinter and, you know, blame the next guy instead of looking in the mirror? Or do you come together as a team, as a unit, and try to fix it?
“That’s where we’re at right now. We’re at a crossroads. Our backs are against the wall.”
As of late, a sustained response hasn’t been there.
After losing 67-54 at Florida on February 1, Tennessee bounced back with a 46-43 win over Auburn at home. The Vols then lost at Vanderbilt on a buzzer-beater and returned home only to lose a second straight game on the final shot, with Missouri hitting a long, running desperation three as time expired to win in Knoxville.
The Vols beat then-No. 1 Alabama 68-59 last week in their biggest and best win of the season, fueled by their most intense and best effort for 40 minutes to date. But they came out flat in a 66-54 loss at Kentucky on Saturday and couldn’t complete a late rally at Texas A&M on Tuesday.
Roughly 15 hours after the loss to the Aggies, James didn’t mince words. This Tennessee team hasn’t met its own expectations.
“We’ve underperformed heavily in our eyes,” James said.
Now it’s up to the Vols to find an answer before it’s too late.
“We have to get a lot smarter, both offensively and defensively,” he said. “We’ve got to learn from our mistakes. And Coach (Rick Barnes) is going to do that. Ultimately, it’s a players game and I have the ultimate faith in myself and my teammates, that we can get the job done.”
Up Next: No. 11 Tennessee vs. South Carolina, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, SEC Network
After hosting South Carolina on Saturday, Arkansas comes to Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday. Tennessee goes to Auburn on March 4 to close the regular-season schedule, before the attention turns to the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
“The jobs required to be on the floor — boxing out, rebounding, screening — it’s not easy,” James said. “That’s why there’s only a certain number of collegiate athletes, that’s why there’s only a certain number of pro athletes at the NBA level.
“The things you’re asked to do is not easy. It’s just, how bad do we want to win? Because if we do those things at a high level, you’re going to put yourself in a good position to win.”