Everytime we get to this point, we ask ourselves if the next win would be the biggest in the history of Tennessee Basketball. The opponent will be wearing the same colors as the #1 ranked team we saw three years ago this week, who took our greatest opportunity and turned it into one of our most painful defeats. This Ohio State team may have a 2 next to their name instead of a 1, but they have the same coach, they have another superstar who could be taken with the first pick in the NBA Draft, and they even have one of the same players from that 2007 team. A win tonight would be monumental not just because of where it would take us, but because of who we have to go through to get there: the only way to ease the pain of San Antonio is to beat another talented Buckeye team in St. Louis.
Is this Tennessee team good enough to win where the '07 team, and every other Tennessee squad that's reach this point, has lost? To reach the uncharted territory of the Elite Eight, the Vols will need to do some or all of the following:
1. Keep Ohio State under 65 points
There's one school of thought that says you take a team that plays basically six guys, and you run them to death. Tennessee has experience playing an up-tempo game, though not recently...and we certainly have the depth that Ohio State doesn't to keep fresh bodies on the floor.
But the biggest difference between this Tennessee team and the ones that have come before it in the Bruce Pearl Era has been half court defense. It's one of the biggest reasons this team has found success since January 1. It's what Ohio coach John Groce, who also saw us from Ohio State's bench three times in '07 and '08, called our bread and butter (to be exact, "where their bread is buttered"). And I'm just not convinced that stepping on the gas, dusting off the press, and speeding up the whole game in hopes of wearing Ohio State down is the best strategy.
Evan Turner, William Buford, Jon Diebler, and David Lighty are used to playing 40 minutes. And the Buckeyes haven't played since Sunday afternoon - they'll be rested and ready. Those in the national media who haven't seen much of the Vols this year seem to think that Tennessee will press - and I'm not saying we never will - in hopes of turning the Buckeyes over and wearing them out. But while Evan Turner is third in the nation with 4.3 turnovers per game, the Buckeyes average only 11.4 per game as a team. They've been vulnerable there in a couple of their losses (16 against North Carolina, 17 against Minnesota), but outside of Turner the rest of the team has been good enough with ball security that we shouldn't expect it to suddenly change.
Bruce Pearl will draw up the best possible game plan, and will probably throw a few wrinkles at the Buckeyes, which may or may not include the press. But speeding the game up and relying on an up-tempo style seems to go directly against what got Tennessee here: a dedicated effort to play great half court defense, and to play with poise throughout. The Vols are 15th in the nation (and third among remaining tournament teams) in FG% Defense, holding the opposition to 39.3% from the floor on average. We'll need that, because Ohio State is fifth nationally in field goal percentage. If we want to play an up-tempo transition game, we risk the sacrifice of our defensive percentage. At this point in the tournament, you dance with the one that brung ya...and we left the up-tempo pressure game for great half court defense a long time ago. You don't try to change or sacrifice your identity in the Sweet 16 - you embrace it, and play to your strengths.
So the primary goal should be holding Ohio State under 65 points...and there's no way we do that playing an up-tempo game. The slower game is also what Ohio State wants to play: the Buckeyes average only 65.5 possessions per game, 268th in the nation (Tennessee averages 70.4). But at times, that pace hasn't worked to their advantage.
Since Evan Turner returned to the regular rotation (not counting his first game back where he played only 20 minutes), Ohio State is 18-3. In those 18 wins, the Buckeyes average 73.2 points, and have scored less than 65 points only once, against the masters of slowdown from Wisconsin.
But check out the scoring in the three losses:
- January 9 at Minnesota: 73-62 L
- January 23 at West Virginia: 71-65 L
- February 17 vs Purdue: 60-57 L
The Buckeyes averaged only 61.3 points in those three losses. If you want to beat this team, you'd better keep them under 65.
Ohio State is a good defensive team that allows only 61.1 points per game, 30th in the nation. They're also capable of scoring a bunch of points at times: in their other two meetings with Minnesota, the Buckeyes scored 175 combined points. The style of both the Vols and the Buckeyes suggests a game in the 60s - Tennessee needs to make sure they keep Ohio State there, and not allow their offense to break out. Keep Ohio State under 65, and you're in the best window of opportunity to find victory.
What's the most important key to keeping the Buckeyes under 65? The one we think is first is actually second:
2. Slow down everyone else
Ohio State didn't lose those three games because of Evan Turner: he had 19-8-7 against Minnesota, 18-11-4 against West Virginia, and 29-7-5 against Purdue. The Buckeyes lost those three games because they didn't get enough help from everyone else. The most likely scenario for keeping Ohio State under 65 isn't in shutting down Turner, but in slowing down everyone else.
One of the biggest questions surrounding this game is "How will the Vols choose to defend the Buckeyes?" We assume J.P. Prince will draw Evan Turner, but everything else is somewhat of a mystery: the Vols have played both zone and man this season, and Ohio State's unique lineup of four 6'5"-6'7" swing players presents a unique challenge.
If Tennessee starts the same five that have given us our best basketball down the stretch, and puts Wayne Chism and Brian Williams on the floor at the same time, the Vols will either have to ask Chism to guard David Lighty, or play zone and hope for the best. You don't want to hope for the best from the perimeter against Jon Diebler, and you don't want to put Chism in a bad matchup where he can't stay with Lighty and he's in foul trouble in a hurry. It's a tough assignment either way.
Like we said, you dance with the one that brung ya, and making huge changes to the lineup at this point makes me nervous (see Prince, J.P., point guard). However, the Vols have experimented before with a lineup that put Prince at the 4 and Chism at the 5 - this would negate Tennessee's post advantage on the other end of the floor, but would give them a better matchup defensively.
Because Melvin Goins is only 5'11", it would probably be a different look than the last time we tried Prince at the 4, which put Maze and Goins on the floor at the same time. We haven't really tried this look this season, but the Vols could go with Maze, Hopson, Tatum, Prince, and Chism - this is the group that gives the Vols the most even matchup on paper, and you can argue that this lineup puts Tennessee's five best players on the floor.
The Vols could then shorten their own rotation and use Brian Williams and Kenny Hall to spell Chism, and plug Steven Pearl in a number of places. Do we see Josh Bone again in this game? Does 6'9" Swipa get in there? There are lots of questions.
Thankfully, I'm just exploring the options and Pearl will actually pick the best one. But whatever it is, Tennessee's best chance starts with slowing down Buford, Diebler, and Lighty. Evan Turner has scored 29 points in a loss before - as good as he is, he will not beat Tennessee by himself. Ohio State needs Diebler to knock down threes and Buford to score off the bounce - if the Vols can take one of those things away and slow the other down, our chances of winning go way up.
3. J.P. Prince and Evan Turner
Of course, Turner doesn't have to get 29 points.
We're assuming that Prince will be the one on Evan Turner duty. For both of these guys, their next college loss will be their last college game. And both have left plenty of memories for their respective programs.
Turner is getting ready to make millions of dollars as one of the first picks of June's NBA Draft, and has been at his best in some of Ohio State's biggest wins. But the same can be said for Prince: he had 33 points in the two Providence games and was great on Kawhi Leonard, he was Tennessee's best player with 20 in the win over Kentucky, scored 39 in the two games against Vanderbilt this season...and even going back to the 2008 1 vs. 2 Memphis game, J.P. Prince has been at his best when the lights have been brightest. And being the guy who's supposed to stop Evan Turner? This is as bright as they'll get.
Physically, there won't be any advantage for either player. Turner is turnover prone, and Prince is great at causing deflections and creating steal opportunities, which is our greatest cause for hope in this individual matchup. Again, Prince doesn't have to hold Turner to four points and get ten turnovers out of him. But if he can frustrate him, and if he can make it more difficult for him to not only score, but get the ball to his teammates, then Tennessee's chances of winning again go up.
Two things that concern me here: Turner is a better rebounder than just about anyone Prince has guarded this year, and J.P. loves to cherry-pick on the other end. Prince HAS to box out and stay on Turner, and not give him second chance opportunities. And second: Turner, as one of the best players in college basketball, is going to get some calls. Prince must stay out of foul trouble, and he must keep his composure. We need one more great performance from our big-game senior. We need people talking more about Prince than Turner when this is over. I'm eager to see if J.P. can deliver.
4. Shot selection against Ohio State's zone
The Buckeyes are often fond of employing a 1-3-1 zone, something Tennessee hasn't seen much. So to begin, limiting turnovers will be key. If Tennessee does stay with their usual lineup and plays Chism and Brian Williams at the same time, the Vols will have a huge size advantage in the post, and must use it. Chism could still potentially be used to draw Lauderdale away from the rim, if his perimeter touches come from the corner and not the top of the key. But for the most part, if we're going to stay big, we need to play big, and get Chism and BWill lots of action inside. I've read a couple places this week that Lauderdale is better than Chism. I think that's absurd. And I'd like to see Weezy prove it.
Here's what really impressed me in Providence: Tennessee shot well above their season percentage (31.8%) from beyond the arc, but that didn't get us overly excited and cause us to shoot too many of them; we never got away from our game plan. We shot 8 of 17 (47.1%) against SDSU, and then 5 of 14 (35.7%) against Ohio...but in both games, we took fewer than the 19 threes per game that we average, and in both games we made sure that our offense was much more than just a hopeful three at the end of the shot clock.
Against SDSU, Chism was 4 of 12, and only three of those were threes. We didn't finish as well at the rim as we should have...but we solved that problem in round two. Against Ohio, with a definitive height advantage that we'll see again against their neighbors from Columbus, Tennessee's post players were 11 of 19 for 27 points; Chism and Williams had 12 rebounds each. The perimeter players got it done against the Aztecs, the post players got it done against the Bobcats. We'll need everybody against the Buckeyes.
Against a great Ohio State defensive team with the Big Ten's best shot blocker inside, how well will Hopson and Prince play in penetration and along the baseline? Can Tennessee get the ball inside to Chism and Williams, and can they finish at the rim?
And who's going to be the guy who steps up that we're not expecting? The Vols don't beat Kansas without Renaldo Woolridge and Skylar McBee. We don't beat Ole Miss in Nashville without Cameron Tatum. We don't beat San Diego State without Melvin Goins. We don't need to shoot a ton of threes, but we do need somebody to be the guy that knocks them down, that starts a run or picks us up. We won't beat a team like Ohio State with just the seniors and Scotty Hopson - we need someone else to have a big game. Who's it gonna be?
5. Every possession counts
This team has worked so hard and overcome so much to get to this point. The Sweet 16 is a privilege, not a right - ask Kansas - and this season has certainly been memorable.
And yet, when you look around...a nine seed and a depleted Michigan State team await the winner of this one. Out West, Syracuse - the one team I thought Tennessee had no real shot against - is down, beaten by Butler. Will Tennessee see a better team than Ohio State until the National Championship game, if then?
If you've read this far, you know we're not looking ahead. But as we mentioned at the end of the podcast last night, I don't want to lose this game and look back on it later and think that we were one win away from playing Northern Iowa and Butler to reach the National Championship Game.
If we somehow manage to jump on the Buckeyes, keep the hammer down. If they jump on us, there should be no quit in this team. All the conversations about our seed have mostly been forgotten, but the point remains: Tennessee is a good basketball team. We may play better as the underdog, but don't forget that this is a team that national analysts were talking about as a three or even a two seed up until the last nine minutes of the Kentucky game. Tennessee is capable of beating anyone we see. That includes Ohio State.
We love this team, this season, and this story. And we don't want it to end, especially with the opportunities that are just beyond tonight. Bruce Pearl's mantra is to play with poise, passion, and purpose. If we do that on every possession, we can win this game, and any others that may come after them. Tonight, we have the unique opportunity to make Tennessee Basketball history.
Keep Ohio State under 65 by playing great half court defense on their whole team. We need a great defensive effort from everyone on the roster, and a sensational one from J.P. Prince. Play with poise on offense, and work for good shots, not quick ones. And take advantage of your edge in the post. I cannot think of a more appropriate scenario for this team and this program than having Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince be the two biggest keys to victory.
We play with poise, passion, and purpose...we keep dancing.