Oakland guard Reggie Hamilton. I love this picture.
Between Duke and Memphis in Maui and Pittsburgh in Knoxville stands Oakland in Rochester, MI. This would usually be the part where we have to explain who the Golden Grizzlies are, but we know these guys: they were the beginning of our end last year, beating Tennessee in Knoxville 89-82 three days after we blasted Pittsburgh on the road. It was the first of three straight losses and six of nine, a stretch that moved the Vols from the Top 5 to the bubble, where they remained all year.
Oakland turned out to be a good team last year, winning the Summit League for the second straight year and giving Texas a run for its money in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They sent center Keith Benson to the NBA Draft, who had 20 points in the first half against the Vols last season, and also graduated 6'9" forward Will Hudson, the team's third leading scorer. So far this year they've been led by 5'11" senior guard Reggie Hamilton, who is averaging 17.8 points per game.
If the Pittsburgh game on Saturday is going to mean as much as we want it to, the Vols have to get it right against Oakland this time around. They may have lost an NBA-caliber player - as did we - but the environment has changed in their favor. The Golden Grizzlies usually host big non-conference teams at The Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Detroit Pistons play, capacity 22,076. But the Vols will be on campus at the Athletics Center O'Rena, capacity 4,005. It'll be a similar venue to Maui, but an exponentially more hostile crowd. Never mind the absence of Bruce Pearl or a national ranking - Oakland is going to be very, very excited to have a program like ours in their own building, and that place is going to get very crowded and very loud.
So it's a great test for a Tennessee team that's clearly still growing but was still almost good enough to win games in Maui no one gave them a chance in. It's a big game for Trae Golden to rebound from his poor performance against Memphis against a more formidable foe than Chaminade. And it's a big game for Jeronne Maymon, hopefully back at 100%, to prove he wasn't just a flash in the pan against Memphis.
Oakland has already played a pair of SEC foes, losing at Alabama 74-57 and at Arkansas 91-68. In both games a similar problem occurred: the Grizzlies take a ton of threes but haven't knocked down most of them. Oakland averages 26.4 threes per game, but is shooting just 25.8% from the arc. Only guard Travis Bader (.356) is hitting more than 30%; he shot 44.3% last year. This team has really struggled to make shots from everywhere, something Cuonzo Martin's team needs to capitalize on with another strong defensive effort.
Tennessee lost this game last year because they blew an 11 point halftime lead, then shot 2 of 14 in the last eight minutes. The Vols looked good going to Maymon in the clutch in Maui, and if it gets tight again it'll be interesting to see if he truly becomes the go-to guy down the stretch. Other things to watch include Jordan McRae's shot selection and playing time in a close game; freshman Josh Richardson isn't nearly the scoring threat McRae is, but Richardson got all the overtime minutes against Memphis because he was playing better defense. Can Tennessee keep up their ridiculously hot three point shooting, which is 16th nationally at 44.0%? And will we see more improvement from Kenny Hall, Dwight Miller, and Yemi Makanjuola in the paint with Oakland now less threatening inside?
If we want to keep tournament dreams going strong, these are the sort of games the Vols have to win. Getting Pittsburgh would be huge, but first we have to get Oakland. It's an obvious trap game in a hostile environment against a team that beat us last year. This is a game a mature team wins. Will we have enough maturity to get it done tonight?
9:00 PM ET - ESPNU