Welcome to the bubble. It's not exactly the coziest of places, is it? We'd have preferred not to end up here if at all possible. By most standards, "all possible" doesn't include missing the last shot of the game more times than any of us would care to count, but with this team, anything truly is possible. Now the Vols sit squarely in the middle of the bubble, thanks to a strong 39 minutes against Florida.
Are the Vols in true danger yet? I tend to doubt it; yes, this hasn't been a great conference slate for the Vols, but that's the case for a lot of teams. Yes, the Vols aren't playing well, but neither are a lot of teams. Yes, the Vols have been wholly unimpressive; you'll be able to say that about more than a few teams in March. Yes, this has been ugly, but lots of teams have been playing ugly. There's still a good chance that someone who hasn't seen the 30-foot special looks at the Vols' 3-4 record in one-possession games (and 0-2 record in overtime) and figures they've been a little bit unlucky, and it's not by design. Now it's on Tennessee to play themselves off, one way or another, and it begins tonight.
South Carolina hasn't been bad, really, but good is probably a bit of an overstatement. They've been the de facto little brother in the SEC East - the Vanderbilt of basketball, if you will. That's not totally their fault, now that Georgia's off the pine. It's easy to look at a team that's 13-10 (4-6) and conclude they're probably not very good, we'll win comfortably, this game will be over by halftime; we said the same thing about Charlotte. This version of the Vols can pretty much do anything they want to, and that includes gacking up a home game to a team they probably should beat.
Who's motivated now?Yeah, this is probably doom and gloom and everything else terrible. Tennessee will field the best two players on the court (when they want to be) in Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson. The things that Tennessee does well - offensive rebounding, defensive intensity - are things that South Carolina doesn't really stop. South Carolina really only blocks shots especially well, no small thanks to Sam Muldrow. What's it come down to, then?
- Get to the line. It's probably a small blessing that South Carolina also does a terrible job of both getting to the line themselves and allowing their opponents to get to the line. You wouldn't know it based on the last few weeks, but Tobias and Scotty both do a great job of this; you'd think they'd remember one of these days that they do a good job of it. The rest of the team has apparently forgotten how to do this, with the possible exception of Cameron Tatum. South Carolina isn't especially deep - the main rotation runs about seven strong - so with a bit of contact, the Vols make this game a lot easier.
- Offensive boards without Brian Williams. Look, we all know B-Will is a beast on the offensive glass (pulling down 17% of available boards, per KenPom). John Fields does a good job when he's in, but he's purely a whirlwind-type player who doesn't see enough useful minutes; is there another guy who can step up and pull down a critical board of two? Four points hopefully won't make or break this game, but I've grown tired of the number of games where I said that and thought otherwise.
- Hey look, it's another speedy, dominant South Carolina guard! Bruce Ellington has been South Carolina's best offensive player, and they've been playing him like that. Denying him shots is probably a fool's errand - he simply holds onto the ball and takes too many shots anyway - but if he can be forced into bad shots, then that's that. He's not a particularly efficient shooter, for that matter (14.2 attempts per game to average 13.9 points means you're just chucking it up and hoping for the best); maybe the answer is forcing him into many bad shots. I'm not picky.
By all rights, this should be a great game to restore the Vols' confidence going into a critical stretch of play, and a win should at least kind of quiet the bubble talk. Let's hope we're not having this same discussion on Saturday.
Game's at 7.