This and every Tennessee Basketball team will be best served by taking things one game at a time, and shame on us for trying to figure out how many games they could afford to lose in the non-conference or assuming victory during this December mid-major run. If losing to Austin Peay won't teach you to value each game, nothing will...and so no more looking ahead, no more talk about tournaments, no more of the future...just the present. And since nothing gets you over the last one like the next one, that starts tonight in Charleston, SC.
You'll remember the team, but perhaps not the faces. Last year's Charleston Cougars lost to Maryland by a point and North Carolina by five before spanking the Vols on New Year's Eve in Knoxville 91-78. That bunch went on to share the SOCON regular season title with Wofford, then fell to them in the tournament finals before advancing to the NIT Quarterfinals. That team also had Andrew Goudelock, who dropped 31 on the Vols en route to becoming the nation's fifth leading scorer and second leading three point shooter. But we bid farewell to Goudelock and Charleston's next three leading scorers, making this a very different basketball team this time around.
The Vols, of course, are plenty different too. This is a team that has thus far proven to be dramatic, capable of victory or defeat against seemingly any opponent of any quality. While the new look Vols have struggled to a 3-5 start, the new look Cougars are 7-1. Their only loss came to Central Florida and Michael Jordan's son. But they won at Clemson and tattooed Morehead State. Interestingly enough, they've also played three of the teams we'll see in the next three weeks: a narrow 68-66 win over UNC-Asheville (our next foe on Tuesday), an easy win over The Citadel, and a double overtime thriller against UT-Chattanooga, which the Cougars won 87-85 in their most recent action a whopping eleven days ago.
For whatever it's worth, Vegas likes Charleston by 2.5. These Vols shouldn't need any extra motivation; the revenge factor feels forced because so many of the faces have changed, but more importantly, Tennessee needs a win to move past the Austin Peay loss and onto something better. But as usual, they'll need to play good basketball - as a team and not as individuals - to get the W.
After the jump, we take a deeper look at the matchup...
Here's the Four Factors breakdown:
Despite losing out in this department in the Pittsburgh game, the Vols continue to be a pretty solid offensive rebounding team, averaging 12.8 per game and getting the rebound on more than a third of their missed shots. That's largely the work of Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall, who get almost half of UT's offensive rebounds (48 of 102) despite Maymon playing only two minutes against Chaminade and only grabbing one against Pittsburgh. Again, the Vols are at their best when they play together, and when Trae Golden penetrates or someone else creates their own shot, Maymon and Hall have often been in exactly the right spot to clean up the mess.
The Cougars are led by 6'7" senior Antwaine Wiggins, who's averaging 17.4 points per game despite an atrocious night against UCF where he scored only two. He'll combine with 6'8" Trent Wiederman (13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds) to give the Cougars a post presence that, on paper, can play with Maymon and Hall. The Vols can't ignore the paint like they did late in the Austin Peay game, but when they do go inside, the challenge should be steeper this time around.
Junior point guard Andrew Lawrence (fun fact: is British) may be the team's most complete player, putting up an impressive stat line of 13.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.0 steals per game to go with just 1.6 turnovers. He also shoots 43.8% from the arc. Charleston isn't hard to figure out there: only five players on their roster have made a three this season, and Wiggins shoots 28.8%. But Lawrence, Anthony Stitt, and Jordan Scott are all hitting at least 37.5% from three.
The Vols cooled off a bit against Austin Peay from three, but are still hitting 40.2% from the arc this year, which is 30th nationally and just one tenth of a point behind Florida for the SEC lead. Skylar McBee continues to be who we thought he was, hitting 50.0%. And Golden, McRae, and Tatum are all still over 40%, all showing big improvement. The Vols will still be best served when threes come as good looks through good ball movement, and I'm not sure any of our guys are good off-the-dribble three point shooters (especially McBee, who's all catch-and-shoot). But Cuonzo should continue to give our guys the green light.
Here's what's frustrating: the Vols have allowed their opponents to shoot an average of 45.0% from the floor. It's way too high - 261 of 344 nationally, and 11th in the SEC - and for a team whose identity we thought would be defense, it's not at all encouraging. The season is still young and so is this team, and I think they'll get better at it. Last year the Vols allowed opponents to shoot 41.1% from the floor.
The Vols are also giving up 73.1 points per game, which is inflated by two overtimes with Memphis, but it's still too high. That number is 290th nationally and dead last in the SEC. Last year, Cuonzo's Missouri State team gave up just 63.1 points per game, ten less per contest. And again, I know it's early and stats mean much less when it's only mid-December. But only against Pittsburgh did Tennessee really excel on the defensive end against teams with a pulse - whether that's effort or pace of play or both, the Vols need to slow down and play harder. Being more intentional and team-oriented on the offensive end will remove some bad shots early in the shot clock, which will help slow the pace and keep points down. And perhaps it's just going to take more time for this team to develop its identity under Cuonzo Martin.
All signs point to this being another close one, and it's one Tennessee really needs to win to get the bad vibes of the Austin Peay loss out and get moving back in the right direction. And if it comes down to the end again, can the Vols be the more poised team that finishes? We saw them do it at the end of regulation against Memphis to get it to overtime, but we haven't seen it result in victory yet. Tennessee couldn't beat Memphis in two overtimes, couldn't be consistent enough to get within a possession at Oakland, and rallied hard but turned the ball over at the end against Pittsburgh. This team needs to learn how to win at the end, something that can only be learned by doing it.
This is a big game for this team going forward. Hopefully their growth shows in victory tonight. 9:00 PM - ESPN2. Go Vols.