Preseason NIT Final Four Preview

Bruce Pearl-free edition!

While the Vols will have plenty of opportunities to find out exactly how good they are before SEC play begins (at #5 Pittsburgh on December 11 & vs #14 Memphis on January 5), I'd rather go ahead and get it over with this weekend.  The Vols would greatly benefit from just playing against #7 Villanova on Friday, whether we scored the upset or not.  So there's a lot of good and a lot of bad that can happen in Madison Square Garden this week:  to win this thing, the Vols will have to beat a good VCU team and, most likely, a championshp-caliber Nova squad.  That would be most impressive.

The flip side of that coin is what happened to the Vols when we were here in November 2006, getting blown out by Butler and North Carolina.  Losses to unranked VCU and UCLA would not only hurt the tournament resume, but could derail any early season confidence or "us against the world" belief that this team is riding right now.

So the goal is Friday at 5:00 PM, where we assume Nova will be waiting.  To get there, the Vols will have to go through VCU, and this tournament will offer the challenge it was supposed to:  a better opponent every round.  Belmont and Missouri State at home were one thing.  This will be a VCU team that knows it can win, and comes to New York with the most to gain.

The Vols and Rams start things off at 7:00 PM EST tonight on ESPN2, immediately followed by Nova-UCLA.  We preview all three teams after the jump... 

Virginia Commonwealth

Here's what the redshirt seniors on this team have seen in the last four years:

  • 2007:  Beat Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, lost to Pitt in overtime in the second round.
  • 2008:  Lost to UAB in the first round of the NIT by three points
  • 2009:  Lost to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by one point
  • 2010:  Regular season wins over Oklahoma and Nevada, lost to a good Old Dominion team in overtime in the CAA Tournament Semifinals, won the CBI Tournament.

These kids know big games, and they know how to win them.  Shaka Smart replaced Anthony Grant as head coach last year after Grant went to Alabama; Grant replaced Jeff Capel in 2006.  This is a program that's had it together for quite some time now, and has become an annual threat.

They proved that in Winston-Salem last week, busting Winthrop 67-54 and then spanking Wake Forest on their home floor 90-69.  The latter was a three point game at halftime, then VCU stepped on the gas and scored 22 points off turnovers...in the second half.  (To be fair, the more impressive win was probably Winthrop, since they turned around and beat Wake in the loser's bracket this week.)

Their press was far too much for a young Wake team to handle.  The Vols aren't young in the backcourt, but they'd better be poised, because the Rams are coming after you every possession.  Tennessee can certainly play fast, but can we play smart at the same time?  This is a huge game for Melvin Goins and Trae Golden.

Not only can VCU get buckets off turnovers in the press, but they can knock down the three:  the team shoots 39% from the arc, and their top four scorers are all shooting better than 44% from three so far this year.  We'll rule out forward Jamie Skeen from that stat, since he's 1 of 2 from the arc.  He had 22 points in the opener but cooled off a bit down at Wake.

The other three leading scorers though - senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, junior guard Bradford Burgess, and senior guard Brandon Rozzell - are a combined 29 of 61 (47.5%) from the arc this year.  Rodriguez also averages 10.3 assists (leading the nation in that stat after three games) to 2.0 turnovers - he's only 5'10", but is clearly a huge part of what makes this team go..

Factor in forward Toby Veal, and this is an experienced team that, at least in the first three games of the season, is good at everything except free throw shooting (58.7% as a team).  They've shot 49.5% from the floor in the first three games, meaning life has been good from the arc and pretty easy from everywhere else.

Tennessee can't make things easy for them, and has to be poised with the pace.  I'm not sure Bruce will want to slow the game down or anything like that, but we may want to/need to explore sending some offense Brian Williams' way.  BWill will want to play a big game in front of his New York fans (same goes for Tobias Harris), and Tennessee will need to rule points in the paint to offset VCU's other advantages.  This game should be very exciting, and could turn into first one to 100 wins.  It'll take a very mature effort to beat the Rams, and I'm very curious to see if we're there yet.

Villanova

Nova is 4-0 and hasn't been threatened, beating Bucknell and Boston U both by 16, and dropping a pair of 35+ point blowouts on Marist and Lafayette.  This was a Final Four team two years ago that got caught with their pants down against Saint Mary's in the second round last year.  They did lose Scottie Reynolds, but returned most of their other key pieces, including Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena.  Fisher is the team's leading scorer at 16.3 ppg, while Pena is averaging an 11-7.

Sophomore point guard Maalik Wayns has also been strong for Nova, averaging 13.5 points and 7.0 assists through four games.  It's hard to get a real feel for them because they haven't played a good team yet, but you know the talent and the experience are there.

Who isn't there is freshman JayVaughn Pinkston, who will miss the showdown with Tobias Harris if the Vols see Nova, as he's held out with pending assault charges.  Still, on paper this is the team that should leave New York with the trophy.

UCLA

After going 14-18 last year, UCLA looks to get back in the dance in 2011.  The Bruins are young but talented, already receiving votes in the polls again (though perhaps some of that is name value), and could make a huge statement by beating Villanova tonight. 

6'8" Reeves Nelson has been a beast, averaging a 19-10 in the Bruins' three wins over Cal State-Northridge, Pepperdine, and Pacific.  Joining him is 6'8" Tyler Honeycutt, another sophomore forward who averages a 16-8.  If the Vols see this team, they'd better be ready to bang.  UCLA has been vulnerable on the offensive glass, however, allowing 13 orebs against CSNorthridge and 11 against Pacific.

Junior guard Lazeric Jones is also a double figure scorer, with 12.3 points and 3.7 assists per game.  The Bruins have talent but lack experience - this is a team that the Vols should beat if we see them, and may have to to salvage the weekend if it's Friday afternoon - the third place game comes Friday at 2:30, and if it's all the same, I'd rather win tonight so I can watch the Iron Bowl, then watch us play for the title at 5:00. 

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