Tennessee and Alabama battle for first place in the SEC

...in basketball, no less.

The biggest opportunity of Tennessee's season will unfold over the next eight days:  today's home date with league leading Alabama, followed by road trips to Lexington and Gainesville.  It's not make-or-break - recall that last year the Vols went to Lexington and Nashville in the same week and lost by a combined 30 points.  That dropped us from 6-2 to 6-4,  but the Vols followed up by winning five of their last six and then made the Elite Eight.  The season won't be over if things go poorly in the next eight days, but if Tennessee wants to win the SEC, there's no bigger opportunity than beating the league leader and winning on the road in Rivalry Week.

We thought Alabama would be the final turn of a four game victory lap against the SEC West, but they've become the beginning of a much longer and much more difficult home stretch.

After a December 18 loss to Oklahoma State, Alabama was 5-6.  Their strength of schedule is 158, and since their non-conference losses include Seton Hall (10-13), Iowa (9-13), and the St. Peter's Peacocks (I'm going to bring this up every time), that number makes a lot of sense.  So less than two months ago, even Bama fans didn't see this coming:

Bama won't be a tournament team this year, but with some more chances to pick up a few non-conference wins at home and the bafflingly weak SEC West this year, Bama still has time to learn how to win and get the program back on the right track this season.

Since then, Alabama is 9-1.

The Tide had zero road/neutral wins in non-conference play, then promptly opened league action with an 18 point win in Starkville.  They didn't stop there:  other than Kentucky, every one of Alabama's wins is by double digits.  Again, strength of schedule is a factor there, and that includes five games against the SEC West...but winning by that much that often certainly helps your confidence.

And because they're in the SEC West, Alabama is now a real threat to win the SEC.  If they win in Knoxville, the Tide will be 7-1 with three wins over the SEC East.  They go to Nashville next week and still have to play Florida and Georgia, but with a win today Alabama could easily finish with 11 or 12 conference wins, and with the East eating itself alive, 11 or 12 could be enough to win the whole thing.

Either way, this is a huge game for Bama's tournament resume.  Kentucky is the only real feather in their cap, and their only two road wins are Mississippi State and Auburn.  If Bama wants to prove it's the real deal, they need this win.  And with no Scotty Hopson, their chances have certainly gone up.

What will Tony Jones need to do in his final appearance (this year...) as interim head coach to make sure the Vols tie the leader in the SEC race?

Tobias Harris vs. JaMychal Green

There are two pounds and two years difference between 6'8" Tobias and 6'8" JaMychal, and though you won't see Green stepping outside the arc, their production has been almost identical this season:

  • Tobias:  14.6 pts, 7.6 reb, 1.6 ast, 73.1 FT%
  • JaMychal:  15.7 pts, 7.7 reb, 1.7 ast, 72.8 FT%

With Hopson out, what they'll also have in common is their role as each team's go-to guy.  We didn't get anything extra from Tobias without Hopson, just his usual 14 points...though granted, he supposedly had a gimpy ankle and we didn't need anything more from him against Auburn.

We haven't seen Tobias take over a game this year, and I'm not sure we're going to - he's not been one for the spectacular, and he's only topped 20 twice (...with 21 against Arkansas and MTSU).  I think the most likely outcome here is both guys get their averages.  JaMychal's a big boy who's been around for three years, and had a 16-12 against us last year.  This will be a big test for Tobias (and whoever else sees him inside) defensively.  This is the most important matchup, but I can very easily see it being a push.

Match Alabama's Defensive Intensity

Again, everything with Alabama has to be tempered with strength of schedule...but the Tide are second in the country in FG% Defense, allowing the opposition to shoot only 36.3% on average.  The opposition may not have been great, but Bama hasn't just been lucky either - the Tide have smothered opponents in SEC play, giving up just 57.9 points per game.  Only Arkansas has hit 70 on them.

It is the absolute strength of Bama's team - here are Alabama's offensive stat rankings in the SEC:

  • Points Per Game:  68.0 - 10th
  • Free Throws Per Game:  16.5 - 12th
  • Three Point Percentage:  31.8 - 11th
  • Three Pointers Attempted Per Game:  13.9 - 11th
  • Turnovers Per Game:  14.8 - 12th
  • Possessions Per Game:  66.8 - 10th

For the Tide to be tenth in possessions per game but first in turnovers shows you what kind of issues they've had offensively.  They also have the unique distinction of leading the conference in both turnovers and steals, a stat that suggests a much faster pace than they actually play.

They can't shoot the three, but when they do it's usually Charvez Davis.  He's worth paying attention to at 38.5% from the arc, and the kid will jack it:  he's taken 6+ treys 12 times this season, including a 5-for-8 performance against Mississippi State on Wednesday.

But aside from him, they don't really shoot threes and they're not great at getting to the line.  It's a slow, methodical pace that involves lots of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, a 6'6" sophomore forward.  Freshman Trevor Releford runs the point, and though his turnover numbers have come down as the year's gone on, the Vols can still take advantage of him.

At its best, Tennessee has been a great defensive team in the halfcourt.  Bama won't run, and the Vols are actually better on the defensive end in the Josh Bone/Scotty Hopson trade.  While we're trying to figure out how to replace Hopson's 16.5 points against a team with a pulse, we've got to remember that the best way to help ourselves is to play great defense against a team that struggles to score.  Bama's not going to make it easy on the Vols...but there shouldn't be any reason we make it easy on them either.

The Tide were good defensively against Kentucky, holding them to 37.7% from the field.  But the Tide also won that game because, surprise surprise, Kentucky shot 59.1% at the free throw line.  We should be good enough to beat Bama at their own game:  be patient, be smart, and play great halfcourt defense.  This will be the first truly hostile environment Alabama has played in, if our crowd wants it to be.  Every little bit helps, and the Tide have been more than willing to turn it over regardless of location.

Defense wins championships.  Rebounding helps.

Win The Paint.

Bama is a good rebounding team, but Tennessee is better.  Bama is a great offensive rebounding team, but Tennessee is still better.  Brian Williams and John Fields will have a size advantage on Bama's guys.  More than just on the glass, Tennessee needs to win the paint offensively and find points in there from Tobias, BWill, and anyone else who'd like to play along.  Alabama has never lost points in the paint this season.  Today's the day. 

The best way to replace Scotty Hopson isn't to shoot a bunch of threes and hope.  It's to attack the basket inside with your next best players.  Life in the paint will be much more difficult against Alabama than it was against Auburn, but it will take big boy basketball to win big boy games like this one.  I want to see Tobias and BWill outscore JaMychal and Chris Hines.  This also means Cameron Tatum will have to deal with Tony Mitchell, who's bigger and stronger.

The way to win without your best offensive player is to do all the other things well:  play great defense against a team that struggles to score, attack the glass (and don't turn it over) to limit their chances, and be smart on both ends of the floor.  Bama doesn't get to the foul line that often - we don't need to encourage them.  And we need to continue to understand the difference between an open look and a good look from the arc.

It'll be a new experience for Bama playing on the road in a game that matters.  And it'll be a new experience for us playing without Scotty Hopson against a team that's capable of taking advantage.  If Bama wants in the tournament, they need to win.  And if we want to win the SEC, this is our opportunity to move to the front of the pack.  Tony Jones has done a great job for us.  Let's send him out the right way.

They're all big from here.  One at a time, the Vols can play their way to the SEC Championship.

5:00 - Fox Sports South & ESPN3.  Beat Bama.

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