It seems that among the "experts", you either believe in Tennessee or you don't. The prevailing thought is that the Vols are ripe for the upset against 11 seed San Diego State in the first round. But among those who don't share that opinion, I've seen more people pick Tennessee to make the Elite Eight than pick them to bow out to Georgetown.
How good anyone thinks Tennessee is will become irrelevant at around 10:00 PM EST tomorrow night, when the Vols meet the Aztecs and the real game begins. And it's not blatant disrespect that's causing so many to pick against UT - San Diego State is a good team that we take lightly at our own risk.
What's the best first round matchup, according to the RPI rankings? It's not even close:
- 6 Tennessee (14) vs. 11 San Diego State (18): 32
- 5 Texas A&M (13) vs. 12 Utah State (30): 43
- 4 Purdue (16) vs. 13 Siena (31): 47
- 5 Butler (11) vs. 12 UTEP (36): 47
- 5 Temple (8) vs. 12 Cornell (48): 56
- 8 California (19) vs. 9 Louisville (37): 56
For a program that's gone to such great lengths to prop up our own RPI and use it as a measuring stick, we'd better take this bunch very, very seriously.
Who are these guys?
San Diego State is 25-8, 11-5 in the Mountain West Conference. They finished third in the league behind New Mexico and BYU, but won the MWC Tournament, beating New Mexico in the semis and UNLV in the finals. This is a program that's now won 20+ games five years in a row - after making their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2006, they played in three straight NIT Tournaments. Last season, they missed out on the NCAA Tournament by two points, losing to Utah 52-50 in the MWC Tournament finals, then rebounded to make it to Madison Square Garden before bowing out in the NIT Semifinals. All of that to say: this team and these players are used to winning, and know how to do it in tournament play. On the other hand, this will be the first trip to the Big Dance for all of these players, as the culmination of their success over the past several seasons.
It will not be the first trip to the Big Dance for their head coach: before Steve Fisher came to SDSU in 1999, he had an incredible run at Michigan. He won the 1989 NCAA Tournament as an interim head coach, then recruited, signed, and led the Fab Five to the NCAA title game in 1991 and 1992. Fisher's reputation was tarnished for allowing Ed Martin to have access to the Michigan program, and it was Martin who was later discovered to have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michigan student athletes. Fisher was fired from Michigan in 1997 as a result of the scandal.
At San Diego State, Fisher has transformed a program that suffered through 13 losing seasons in 14 years before his arrival. Despite their rise as a basketball program, they have never made it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Here's a good look at the rise of the program from the North County Times.
Let's start with their only bad loss, which is also the only common opponent we share: that's right Hooper, it's Wyoming.
Playing at home, the Cowboys beat the Aztecs 85-83 on January 9, coming from 14 points down with less than five minutes to play. According to the recap, Wyoming's full court press made the difference down the stretch (SDSU turned it over four times in their final eleven possessions)...file that away. Guard/forward Afam Muojeke scored 30 points for Wyoming in the win. Tennessee beat Wyoming 77-58 in Knoxville on December 15, though it's worth nothing that the Vols led only 42-41 at halftime.
All of SDSU's other losses were to teams that are still playing in a postseason tournament:
- 11/17 at St. Mary's - 80-58 L
- 11/25 at Pacific - 71-63 L
- 12/19 at Arizona State - 55-52 L
- 01/13 at UNLV - 76-66 L
- 01/23 vs BYU - 71-69 L
- 02/06 at New Mexico - 88-86 L
- 02/24 at BYU - 82-68 L
The Aztecs do have five wins over NCAA Tournament teams. They beat UC Santa Barbara in December, and beat New Mexico and UNLV twice each, once at home and once in the MWC Tournament.
SDSU plays an eight man rotation, and is led by 6'7" freshman Kawhi Leonard (12.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 16 double-doubles). Leonard joins 6'8" Billy White (11.2, 4.4) and 6'9" Malcolm Thomas (11.0, 7.8) on the front line, a group that can match the Vols' front line of 6'7" J.P. Prince, 6'9" Wayne Chism, and 6'10" Brian Williams. When they go to the bench, they bring in 6'11", 297 lbs Brian Carlwell, an Illinois transfer. Leonard leads the Mountain West in rebounds, Thomas
leads is second in the Mountain West in blocks.
The backcourt is led by D.J. Gay, the fourth double-digit scorer with 10.3 points per game. Gay averages 3.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers per game; the Aztecs average 13.4 turnovers per game, just ahead of the Vols at 13.2. Gay is a player who has shown an ability to score 20+ from time to time - when you have four players who average between 10-13 points per game, you're going to get that with several guys. Being that the Vols have four guys who average between 9-13 points per game, we know all about trying to figure out which guy is going to lead in scoring every night. Guard Chase Tapley rounds out the starting five, another guy who's capable of scoring 15+ from time to time. The Aztecs average 70.6 points per game.
The balance means the Vols cannot afford any lapses in defense - whatever look Bruce Pearl draws up, San Diego State will have no offensive liabilities on the floor. This means that everyone, from Bobby Maze at point to Wayne Chism inside, will need to be ready to play great defense. If defense and rebounding have been our keys to victory all year, that certainly will not change on Thursday night.
We have similarities in size and balance. The biggest difference comes in experience: not only has most of the Tennessee roster been to March Madness before, we're led by three seniors - the Aztecs have only one senior after graduating four starters from last year's team, and start two freshmen (Kawhi Leonard and
D.J. Gay Chase Tapley). Their lone senior is guard Kelvin Davis, who comes off the bench. Hopefully their progression suggests that this is the year they make the tournament, and 2011 is when they do some real damage in it.
The Key Points
Offensive Rebounding was the first thing Bruce Pearl pointed out: the Aztecs average 13.1 offensive rebounds per game, better than everyone in the SEC except Kentucky (14.4) and Florida (13.2). The stat that Pearl mentioned was that the Aztecs get the rebound on 46% of their missed shots - by comparison, the Vols get the rebound on only 36% of their misses.
San Diego State takes fewer threes than Tennessee (16.5 per game to the Vols' 18.8), and those shots are really only taken by Gay, Tapley and Kelvin Davis - Gay is a 38.3% shooter from beyond the arc, and Tapley 38.9%, so they're the ones to keep an eye on. Playing more inside keeps more bodies available to get the rebound. On the flip side, it could open up transition opportunities for the Vols. This means we need our bigs to be a real presence on the glass first, and second we need to not screw up when we have a transition advantage, which we are sometimes fond of doing.
While the front line is big and talented, opposing guards have had some huge games against the Aztecs. None of these guys are slouches, but look at some of these backcourt numbers against SDSU in games the Aztecs lost:
- Dellavedova/McConnell, St. Mary's: 13 of 26, 9 of 17 3PT, 41 points
- Willis/Bellfield, UNLV: 10 of 24, 14 of 17 FTs, 35 points
- Fredette/Haws, BYU: 17 of 29, 8 of 12 3PT, 8 of 8 FTs, 50 points
- Hobson/Gary, New Mexico: 11 of 25, 4 of 7 3PT, 18 of 23 FTs, 44 points
- Fredette/Emery, BYU: 14 of 24, 5 of 10 3PT, 10 of 16 FTs, 43 points
In games San Diego State has lost, they've done so not because teams outplayed their front line, but because they had no answer for strong guard play. And while we shouldn't at all expect the Vols to put up three point numbers like these, the high volume of free throw attempts by guards in each contest suggests that, despite their size inside, these guys are vulnerable to penetration.
If that's the case, Tennessee's biggest concern has to be getting Chism, Brian Williams, Kenny Hall, and Steven Pearl to attack the glass...and then putting the offense in the hands of our attackers: Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince, and Cameron Tatum need to go to the hole.
This is not a game where, if we win 49-48 and it's incredibly ugly, we need to complain. This is not your average first round game - it's the best game on the board. As such, and as is the nature of the tournament, the name of the game is survive and advance. This is not a year where the competition level is going to go up significantly from here - it's already up. The "one game at a time" mantra has never been more true in a first round game for the Vols, and if we're going to win, we're going to have to earn it.
Showing up and expecting our SEC pedigree and our wins over Kansas and Kentucky to carry us means we're on the first flight home Friday morning. Come to play, and we'll get a great game. If the Vols rebound, attack the basket, and play with poise the way a more experienced team should, it's a game Tennessee will win.