Since the Vols have put together huge back-to-back wins, we thankfully arrive at Saturday's non-conference showdown with anticipation instead of desperation. 12-6 Tennessee is moving in the right direction after wins against Vanderbilt and at Georgia, ending a 3-6 slide and any belief that the season couldn't be saved. The Vols have proven they can win under Tony Jones both at home and on the road, and no matter what happens against UConn, the next four SEC games will give Tennessee every reason to avoid another slide and keep making progress. Combined record of Arkansas, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Georgia: 52-17. Combined record of LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Alabama: 40-33.
But Tony Jones is off the hook for this one, because Bruce Pearl returns in a special guest appearance which, combined with the fact that CBS hasn't had one of our games yet this year, means you'll hear plenty about him.
What you may or may not hear about but definitely should is the way Pearl's teams have played against ranked non-conference opponents. Updating the numbers from that story after wins over #3 Pittsburgh and #22 Memphis, Pearl's Vols are now 10-7 against ranked non-conference opponents in the regular season during his six year tenure, despite being the higher-ranked team in only three of those seventeen games.
We know how to get the job done, and we know how to get it done on the road, having done it already in Madison Square Garden against #7 Villanova, and in hostile territory at #3 Pittsburgh. The Panthers haven't lost to anyone else, and Nova's only other loss came at UConn Monday night.
Against Nova, the Vols took a one point game at the under eight and turned it into a ten point victory. And at Pitt, selective memory from folks like Digger Phelps - who recently said the Panthers "basically gave the game away" - has made it necessary to remind you that though the Vols won by "only" 7, we led by more than that (and as many as 21) from the 13:27 mark of the first half until the final basket of the game with :16 to play.
Those two wins from the fall semester and the two wins from the last week guarantee that the Vols will be playing with the confidence necessary to win. It's in UConn's best interests to take the Vols very seriously.
But I hope they don't. Not because I don't think we can beat them at their best. Just because I've really enjoyed the beatings we've put on two Big East opponents, and there's no one from that conference we'd enjoy doing it to a third time more than UConn.
These are the only two institutions I know of whose rivalry in a women's sport is strong enough to bleed over, even if only slightly, to the men's side. I'm not sure if the fact that Geno and Pat haven't crossed paths since January 2007 helps or hurts the situation, but the fact remains: Tennessee doesn't like UConn, and UConn doesn't like Tennessee. Our only meeting on the men's side came at the height of the women's rivalry, in the second round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, where the 4 seed Vols earned one of the biggest wins in program history over the 5 seed and defending National Champions from UConn 65-51, giving Tennessee its first trip to the Sweet 16.
History, emotion, and confidence won't be enough to win on Saturday - it's likewise in the Vols' best interests to take UConn very seriously, because this is an outstanding basketball team like the Big East foes we've seen before them. The Huskies were an afterthought in that conference coming into the season, and a four point win over Wichita State to open the Maui Invitational seemed to confirm that idea. But the next two nights, UConn beat then-#2 Michigan State, then blew out Kentucky 84-67, shooting 58% from the field and the arc and 90% at the line.
The Huskies ran it to 10-0 before Big East play began, and Pitt gave them a reality check 78-63. That started a tough four game stretch that included overtime wins against South Florida and Texas, and a three point loss at Notre Dame. But the Huskies are fresh off a huge win against Villanova to get them to 15-2 on the year...
...and that win was made possible by the nation's best player.
If you're not familiar with Kemba Walker, you will be on Saturday. The 6'1" junior is locked in a battle with Jimmer Fredette to become the nation's leading scorer - Walker currently averages 25.5 per night, just three-tenths behind Jimmer. He's projected to go sixth in the NBA Draft by Draft Express (FYI, Tobias Harris has passed Scotty Hopson in their projections - Hopson is still an early second round pick, but they've got Tobias at 19 right now).
Bruce Pearl's teams haven't always been known for stopping great guards (see: Meeks, Jodie), and Walker is an elite player. It is worth noting that against Nova, Pitt, and Georgia, the Vols took away the other team's best player:
- Corey Fisher: 1 of 10, 3 points, 1 assist, 6 turnovers, fouled out
- Ashton Gibbs: 4 of 13, 15 points, 4 turnovers
- Trey Thompkins: 4 of 13, 13 points, 4 rebounds
Those were great individual defensive efforts by a different guy each game, complemented by great team defense.
However, Walker is at least one step above those guys. Here's what Pearl's teams have allowed against Top 10 NBA Draft picks:
- LaMarcus Aldridge (#2 '06) - 15 points, 9 rebounds (W)
- Tyrus Thomas (#4 '06) - 17 points (7 of 7), 9 rebounds (L)
- Greg Oden (#1 '07) - 15.5 points, 9 rebs, 3.5 blocks (L, L)
- Kevin Durant (#2 '07) - 26 points, 8 rebs (OT) (W)
- Al Horford (#3 '07) - 19.5 points, 12.5 rebs, 3.5 blocks (L, W)
- Mike Conley, Jr. (#4 '07) - 16.5 points, 5.5 rebs, 5 assists (L, L)
- Corey Brewer (#7 '07) - 12 points, 4.5 rebs, 4.5 assists (L, W)
- Brandan Wright (#8 '07) -19 points (8 of 9), 8 rebounds (L)
- Joakim Noah (#9 '07) - 13.5 points, 8.5 rebs (L, W)
- Derrick Rose (#1 '08) - 23 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals (W)
- Joe Alexander (#8 '08) - 6 points (1 of 6), 7 rebounds (W)
- D.J. Augustin (#9 '08) - 23 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists (L)
- Tyreke Evans (#4 '09) - 17 points, 8 rebounds (L)
- John Wall (#1 '10) - 19 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists (L, W, L)
- Evan Turner (#2 '10) - 31 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists (W)
- DeMarcus Cousins (#5 '10) - 13 points, 13.6 rebounds (L, W, L)
Here's the point: with the exception of Joe Alexander, you just can't stop elite talent like this in college basketball. Tennessee isn't going to shut Kemba Walker down. His lowest point total this season is 18. And he'll play almost the entire game. He scores from everywhere: Walker averages 5.8 threes attempted per game and hits 37.4% of them, while also getting to the free throw line for 7.7 attempts per game, where he shoots 84.1%. The Vols could trot that 3-2 zone back out and try to put pressure on him. If we go man, Melvin Goins has the size to potentially bother him, but what we've seen so far this season doesn't suggest Goins can stay in front of him. Tennessee could try Scotty Hopson on him to bother him with length, but no matter what UT tries, it's going to take a team effort just to slow him down.
The good news is, the Vols won seven of those games against Top 10 NBA Draft picks. We didn't do it by stopping any of them, we did it by containing the damage around them. There are a few other key factors in dealing with UConn: Alex Oriakhi is their guy in the paint, a 6'9" 240 sophomore averaging 11.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He's been on a tear recently, getting 12+ boards in three of UConn's last four games, including 21 (10 offensive) in the overtime win against Texas.
But Oriakhi is also the key component in both of UConn's losses. Against Pittsburgh, he was totally shut down: eight points and only one rebound. The Panthers are the best rebounding team in the nation, but keep in mind the Vols outrebounded them when we played. Kemba scored 31 against Pittsburgh...and UConn lost by 15.
Notre Dame got to Oriakhi by getting him in foul trouble: he played only 23 minutes in an overtime loss, fouling out with zero points and six rebounds. If Tennessee can take him away, they can withstand whatever Walker throws at them.
Keep an eye on Shabazz Napier off the bench, who shoots 37.9% from the arc - he and Walker are the only two players who shoot over 30% from three. UConn is 208th nationally in three point percentage and 211th in three pointers attempted - if it's not those two guys, it's not coming from there. What they will do, however, is crash the glass - just like Pitt and Florida, UConn is in the top ten nationally in offensive rebound percentage (getting 41.1% of their misses). Being that the Vols are 12th nationally in that department, we already know what to do here.
Don't focus on trying to stop a guy no one else has stopped. Take away the rest of their strengths, and Walker's best may not be enough.
On the other end, Tennessee doesn't need anything new: it'll have to start with Scotty Hopson being assertive and finishing at the rim. Note that UConn leads the nation in blocked shots, with 6.9 per game. Scotty has to keep attacking, and our bigs have to go up strong. Have to. HAVE TO.
If Good Scotty shows up, you know we'll have a chance to win. All Tobias has to do is exactly what he's done all year, and he can be especially effective by going at Oriakhi and getting him in foul trouble. The Vols need Cameron Tatum to contribute - we beat Georgia without him, but we won't get UConn that way. If he can knock down some threes, both for his confidence and to show the Huskies we can shoot it, it'll open up everything else for the offense.
Brian Williams has been the key to each of the last two victories. He needs to be strong on Saturday: give Tennessee the edge rebounding, and attack their bigs on the other end. And then there's that elusive question: who else is going to step up? The Vols probably can't beat UConn with just four guys playing well and the rest of the team contributing little offensively. Someone else has to step up. It's been Skylar McBee the last two nights, but it's also been guys like Melvin Goins and Jeronne Maymon and other points this year. Who gives us the extra boost we need?
The Vols have evened out, and no matter what happens we'll look to an easier two weeks ahead, solid preparation for the full-time return of Bruce Pearl and the crucial back half of the SEC schedule, where Tennessee's NCAA Tournament fate will ultimately be decided.
But that fate and our confidence can take an enormous step forward if the Vols can sweep the Big East with a win on Saturday. You want to prove you're still the team that beat Nova and Pitt? Only UConn stands in the way of our Big East Championship.