Awake, O sleeper! Rise from the dead...
The Vols continue to be full of surprises: after running away from Mississippi State in Starkville in the regular season finale, Tennessee engaged in heavy sleepwalking against a 2-14 LSU team for most of today's SEC Tournament opener. The first half was a trip to the dentist: Tennessee had to work hard just to tie it at 21-21 at the break. The Vols hit their first three point attempt at the start of each half, only to spend much of the rest of the game breaking in the rims at Bridgestone Arena.
The reality is, LSU is one of the worst SEC teams we've seen in a long time, and as such Tennessee could play poorly and still be in the game. In the second half, one quick spurt from the Vols was enough to push the lead to ten, sparked by three pointers from Cameron Tatum and Wayne Chism. The Vols saw a familiar 2-3 zone, and responded with a familiar effort from beyond the arc, finishing 4 of 23 (17.4%). But those two shots, a few turnovers, and the overall talent gap was enough to put the Vols in front down the stretch, and LSU never pulled closer than five in the final minutes.
It was similar to the regular season meeting between the two teams, won by the Vols 59-54 in Baton Rouge. You could spin it and say that the Tigers just play Tennessee tough...but again, the Tigers are terrible, and that offers little comfort. Of equal concern with Tennessee's shooting percentages is the way this team carried itself: the Vols were turnover prone from the start and finished with 17 of them (you know what to expect here: J.P. Prince with 11 points, 5 turnovers), and looked not only slow, but asleep at times.
The player who was awake and fully alive was the most important one for the Vols: Wayne Chism had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and again made sure everyone knows that he is the leader of this team. When the Vols were sleepy, he did his best to wake them up with his enthusiasm and his play on the inside. And when the opportunity to pull away finally presented itself (...if it wasn't, in fact, there the whole time), Chism hit the biggest shots as Tennessee pushed the lead to double digits. He shot 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, his best performance from three since his career high night against South Carolina on February 6. And his beautiful left handed score in the paint showed again that he is capable of doing damage from inside and out.
Following Chism's lead, Brian Williams had 7 points and 14 rebounds, half of them offensive. When the backcourt struggled, the men on the inside dominated. As a result, Scotty Hopson could go 0 of 8 from the field, and the Vols could still win.
Again...it's LSU. The Vols held them under 50, dominated the paint on both ends, and made the free throws they needed to down the stretch...but it's LSU.
But it's also tournament time, which means the win is the most important stat. The Vols move to 24-7 and advance to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, where they'll face Ole Miss on Friday around 3:15 PM EST.
Ole Miss is a team that, for whatever reason, plays Tennessee really really well. In the last four meetings, the Vols have been blown out twice in Oxford, and needed overtime this year and a last second shot from Tyler Smith in '08 to beat the Rebels in Knoxville.
The regular season meeting this year was way back on January 16, and it's very tough to take anything from it: the Vols played their six scholarship/three walk-on lineup against the Rebels, which means Renaldo Woolridge started and played 21 minutes. This game also featured Josh Bone's one shining moment, as he locked down Chris Warren when Bobby Maze couldn't. Warren will definitely be a player to watch tomorrow, but the Tennessee team the Rebels are going to see will be very different than the one they saw in January. That team came back from 12 down with 9 minutes to play, behind 41 minutes from Wayne Chism and 38 from J.P. Prince, in a 71-69 overtime win. Chism had 26 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting - that part doesn't need to change.
Does the mystery and the different look work to our advantage? Probably - Brian Williams has become a big part of Tennessee's success in the paint, and when he and Chism are on the floor together it gives the Vols a huge advantage against a guard-heavy Ole Miss squad. But Ole Miss is also a bubble team, and they know that this will be the game that makes or breaks them. Tennessee is undefeated against the SEC West this season, and played their best game of the year on the road when Mississippi State was in the exact same situation...no reason to let that change tomorrow.
For a team in search of its best basketball, today we picked the right opponent to play our worst against. The Vols will take the win and advance, knowing full well that it will take more to beat Ole Miss. For our seeding and for the Rebels' future, it's a huge game. Will the Vols start slow and struggle again? Or will this team be fully alive, and play their way to the weekend?