With Hubbs hobbling, Tennessee struggling down the stretch
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Tennessee’s fortunes began to fade around the same time Robert Hubbs III’s knee problems got more troublesome.
Tennessee’s leading scorer has had his right knee drained twice in the last month and the Volunteers have lost three straight and five of their last six. Hubbs’ knee issues exemplify the agonizing way the last few weeks have played out for Tennessee.
”In the last three weeks, he’s been as courageous as any player we’ve been around in a long time,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
The Vols (15-15, 7-10 SEC) will need to find a way to right themselves heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against visiting Alabama (17-12, 10-7).
Hubbs averages a team-high 14.2 points per game. The senior guard played a pivotal role in the highlight thus far of Tennessee’s season by scoring 25 points in an 82-80 upset of No. 9 Kentucky , which was ranked fourth at the time.
That victory over Kentucky was part of a four-game winning streak that improved Tennessee’s record to 12-9 and helped put the Vols in some NCAA Tournament discussions.
But Tennessee has gone 3-6 with a hobbled Hubbs leading a team that regularly starts three freshmen.
”I give my all every time I step on the court,” Hubbs said. ”I’m not going to make excuses.”
Hubbs has grown accustomed to dealing with adversity.
The former top-20 recruit played for different head coaches each of his first three years at Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin left for California after Hubbs’ freshman year and was replaced by Donnie Tyndall, who lasted only one season. Hubbs has spent the last two years playing for Barnes.
Hubbs appeared in just 12 games as a freshman before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, which prevented him from playing when Tennessee made its surprising run to an NCAA regional semifinal. He has continued battling injuries throughout his career.
”Of course it’s not ideal or (how I) expected it or wanted it to be,” Hubbs said. ”But I’m perfectly fine with it. Things like that happen in life. I’m proud of the way I’m playing right now and couldn’t be more excited.”
Barring a dramatic run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, this former five-star prospect won’t get the chance to play in an NCAA Tournament game. But he has garnered plenty of respect for the way he has performed at less than full strength.
”You have to have great respect for a guy that has gone through what he’s gone through, with some injuries since he’s been here, especially the last month,” Barnes said. ”It’s impressive.”
Hubbs won’t be the only Tennessee senior playing at less than full strength Saturday.
During a 92-82 loss at LSU on Wednesday, reserve forward Lew Evans took a shot to the face that loosened and pushed back his two front teeth. The injury is preventing Evans from eating much and likely will require postseason surgery.
Despite the challenges, the Vols are looking to end their slump against Alabama and gain some needed momentum heading into the SEC tournament.
Said Barnes: ”What we’ve got to do (Saturday) is see if we can get the team back that was playing well for us three weeks ago.”
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