We wondered if we'd miss Scotty Hopson. It took about five minutes to figure out how little it mattered against Auburn.
Make no mistake, it will matter from here. What was supposed to be a four game vacation against the SEC West has been cut short: turns out Alabama can play, and they'll come into Knoxville in a little over 40 hours as the league leader at 6-1. If the Vols want to entertain an SEC Championship, it's a game they have to win.
But what that also means is that the once-inconsistent Vols did exactly what good teams are supposed to do against lesser competition: 22 point win over LSU, 17 point win at Ole Miss, 13 point win tonight...and this really wasn't that close.
Tennessee led by 22 with five minutes to play before we took our foot off the gas a tad. Without Hopson, we got there in the paint, where Tennessee put on one of the most dominating rebounding displays I've ever seen.
Auburn is bad - 283 in the RPI, a number that will cause Tennessee's strength of schedule rating to drop from first to third. But Tennessee was also great inside tonight: +16 in rebounds, including the first ten boards of the game. It took almost eight minutes for the Tigers to get a rebound in this game, plenty of time for Tennessee to build a double digit lead. Offensively, the Vols shot 45.1% and still grabbed 13 offensive boards, getting the rebound on 46.4% of their misses (that percentage was above 50 until the last five minutes). Tobias Harris has an injured ankle? Could've fooled me: 14 points and 5 rebounds. Cameron Tatum added 15 and 7.
And one of the real keys in the Vols' run of five straight SEC wins has been Brian Williams, who did anything he wanted tonight with 15 points and 8 rebounds in 22 minutes. In the last five SEC games, Williams is averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds.
It's hard to learn a lot about this team against these West opponents, but it also feels like being down 17 in the first half against Vanderbilt was a very long time ago. The Vols are at 15-7, 5-2 in the SEC with nine to play. We cut the vacation short, and hopefully we get Scotty back sooner than later...but if we continue to improve, we'll have what we need to get the job done against the best teams in this league.
We've put ourselves in position to compete for the league title. From here on out, every game is a big one.