So, what's going to happen when they don't call sixty fouls this time?
On November 17, the Vols built a seventeen point late in the second half, then held on at the free throw line to beat the Bruins in the Preseason NIT 85-76. The good news against Belmont was the good news against USC: the Vols shot 32 of 39 from the stripe against the Bruins, 82.1%. On the year Tennessee is shooting 69.6% at the line, just a few percentage points behind Pearl's first team (70.1%) for the best in the last six years. That '06 team had two automatic shooters in C.J. Watson (.878) and Chris Lofton (.917), but these Vols have a more balanced effort, with four players hitting over 75% (Hopson, Tatum, Goins, McBee).
The bad news against Belmont was also the bad news against USC: the Vols had a jaw-dropping 27 turnovers against the Bruins. The 18 Tennessee committed against USC really kept them from any consistency on the offensive end, making it hard to get any runs going against a tough Southern Cal defense.
We can't assume we're going to shoot 30+ free throws again, and if we turn it over 27 times again we deserve to lose. What the Vols have to find, no matter how many times they turn it over, is a more consistent identity on offense. Somewhere between the team that blasted Pittsburgh and the team that's lost the last three games, the Vols have to discover enough offense to turn this slide around.
A change in the rotation and a tough opponent the second time around will be an excellent test for this team...but the Vols have to start passing instead of failing.
The Vols will get more offense from their bench by process of elimination: Steven Pearl is doubtful with a knee injury, meaning there are minutes to be had at the 3 behind Cameron Tatum. They could go to Renaldo Woolridge, but the Vols may also elect to get Jordan McRae involved. McRae has the potential to score, but hasn't been able to get in the flow offensively, and hasn't played at all in the last three games.
Pearl was solid at the 4, but hasn't brought much to the table at the 3. The Vols are in a mess with the rotation that I'm not sure will get resolved this year, with too much talent in the post and not enough scoring from the perimeter. Tobias Harris, Brian Williams, Jeronne Maymon, John Fields, and Kenny Hall can all play, but there's just no way to get them all enough minutes to matter. Of that group, really only Tobias could slide to the 3 if the Vols wanted to go bigger, and that would come at the expense of Cameron Tatum, who's been very consistent.
The best case scenario is for Skylar McBee to start playing well - that would solve so many problems. That's also assuming that Scotty Hopson isn't broken, just normal...which means he's due for a good game.
Hopson, Tatum, and Tobias are the core that plays the most minutes, all three averaging 27-28 per game. And against Belmont the first time, those three led the way: 18 for Hopson, 16 for Tobias, 14 for Tatum. The Vols have the makings of a truly balanced team that can put five guys in double figures: Melvin Goins averages 9.3, and Brian Williams has been one of the few bright spots during the losing streak, coming alive with 31 points and 28 rebounds in the last three games.
But right now, they don't play like a truly balanced team. When Hopson plays well, the rest of the team plays well. Tobias is playing well every night regardless, a remarkable accomplishment for a freshman that's getting overlooked because we're not winning. But when Hopson isn't on, this team is struggling to find itself. With Hopson taking only five shots against USC, the rest of the team did a lot of one-on-one stuff instead of using the great ball movement that served them so well against Villanova and Pittsburgh. Obviously, when defenses have to worry about Hopson more, there are more opportunities for the other guys to finish plays and make the ball movement look good...but Tennessee has to find a way to produce even without Hopson, or the three ball.
The good news here is, the Vols beat Belmont once already without much help from the three, going just 3 for 11. The bad news is, Belmont also struggled - 7 of 26 - and that's not like them.
We knew the Bruins were feisty before the first meeting. We also knew they could shoot the three (currently averaging 39% as a team, led by Jordan Campbell and Ian Clark, who had 18 against us last time). But this team may be better than we gave them credit for the first time: their only two losses are to the Vols and Vanderbilt, both by the same 85-76 score. Sure, one of their wins was a double overtime affair with the same MTSU team the Vols beat by 30...but holy cow, look at what they've done to everyone else:
- Arkansas State - 93-60
- Marist - 102-74
- Winthrop - 71-44
- Tennessee State - 87-72
- Mercer - 89-67
- Kennesaw State - 87-60
- Troy - 98-63
- Alabama State - 66-53
The Bruins are 8th in the nation in scoring at 85 points per game, and they win by an average of 21 points. Some of that is the schedule, but Belmont is also doing what good teams are supposed to do against lesser competition...a lesson the Vols haven't learned yet.
This team has come close against the Vols plenty of times - they'll want this one badly, and won't care much about doing it with or without us on a three game losing streak.
We need this one, and it won't be easy. But it's also fitting for the Vols to get another chance to end this streak against a good team - we lost to Charlotte, so assume nothing, but Tennessee-Martin is next, and they're 4-8. Even on our losing streak, we may be able to show up and out-talent them.
That won't work against Belmont though. If we win, we'll earn it.
And that's exactly what this team needs.