Memphis is Memphis. You can count on them to have a ton of talent and freakish athleticism - some of the blocked shots and dunks the Tigers had tonight were SportsCenter-worthy.
Unfortunately, when you get blown out by 20, they usually don't show your stuff. Because all of our favorite things about Memphis Basketball were also on display tonight: poor free throw shooting (53.8%), no offensive continuity, and absolutely no defense under any circumstances.
Under such favorable circumstances, all of our favorite things about Tennessee Basketball this season made a triumphant return: great defense, total domination on the glass, and ball movement that gets everyone involved in the offense. Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson did their thing, 17 and 16, Tobias throwing in 13 rebounds for good measure. In
17 21 minutes. (Bruce said 17 on his postgame show. I think he got excited.)
But the rest of the Vols also lit up the scoreboard tonight, and after a three week drought opened the floodgates from beyond the arc. The Vols finished the game 12 of 21 from three, but at one point were 10 of 14. The game was never really close, but Memphis did cut a 25 point lead to 15 just before halftime, then cut it to 10 in less than a minute to start the second. That's when the Vols really went to work from the arc: in six minutes, the Vols hit six threes in a row, sparking a 42-16 run that was a very welcome reminder of what the Vols did to Pittsburgh.
There are a number of things that could temper our enthusiasm: Memphis plays all freshmen and no defense, the Vols could get cocky, and now Bruce Pearl takes a seat for eight games and the real season begins. But at least for tonight, I don't care at all about any of those things.
Because man, that was fun.
Memphis, of Conference USA fame, has long fancied themselves the dominant basketball program in the state. It's also been their stance that they'd rather not play us, something Josh Pastner echoed this week (though he's much less of a jerk about it than John Calipari was). Recruiting is a factor, but so is the belief that the Tigers are superior to the Vols, and have nothing to gain in this series.
After tonight, maybe we should ask to stop playing them. Because right now, there is no question about who the dominant basketball program in the state is. And I hope every high school basketball player in the city of Memphis watched every single minute tonight.
The young bucks on the Tiger High squad are certainly talented, and by March they may have a good team. But their individual efforts tonight weren't nearly enough in a game the Vols led by double digits from the 13:47 mark in the first half until the final horn. UT's biggest lead? 36.
Everyone noted how similar these two teams were coming into this game, still trying to find themselves, talented yet frustrating. But the Vols and Tigers couldn't have been further apart tonight. For the second year in a row, Tennessee dominated Memphis on the glass (+11) and forced 16 turnovers. More importantly, everyone contributed. Seriously, everyone: 14 different Vols scored in this game, and 9 of them scored at least 6 points.
The rotation was trimmed to 10, with Josh Bone sliding to the 3 and Skylar McBee seeing an increase in minutes at the 2. Both made Pearl's decision look great, and both shot 2 of 3 from the arc. The Vols will be undersized off the bench if they stick with that rotation, but if those guys can become consistent perimeter threats, Tennessee is exponentially more dangerous. The Vols made 36 shots with 25 assists. Everyone contributes.
With the win, Tennessee goes to 10-4, and now no matter what happens against UConn, the Vols have three marquee wins to balance the four non-conference losses. The SEC will be a grind every night, and every win will be precious - the Vols may still show some inconsistency, but tonight we got another reminder of how good life can be. And most importantly, Tony Jones takes over with a team heading in the right direction, instead of a team still in the midst of a flat spin.
We'll need our big boy pants every night in the SEC. But we're going to celebrate this one for at least one night. Putting these guys in their place is always great. But Jimmy Dykes said repeatedly that he thought this would be the most important game of our season when it was all said and done. If that's going to be the case, the Vols will need to keep moving forward with all 10 guys.
There's no need to play with arrogance after beating a Conference USA team. But now there is reason to play with confidence.