In our year-end roundtable for the SEC Power Poll, voters were asked if any team outside of the six NCAA Tournament hopefuls had a real chance to win the SEC Tournament and steal a bid. Back when I was still hopeful that we'd be enjoying a first round bye in this thing, I of course picked Arkansas.
That's because the Hogs beat Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama, and lost to Georgia by one point. This is why it's so confusing that Arkansas also went an incredibly impressive 0-4 against the state of Mississippi (average margin of defeat: 10 points), with a bonus loss to LSU.
They closed with a two game stretch against the Mississippis, which sends them to Atlanta on a two game losing streak and without the momentum they had from the Kentucky win on February 23. The Hogs should be a safe bet for the NIT at 18-12, but not only will they be playing for the same NCAA Tournament bid that's available to all twelve SEC teams this weekend, they could be playing to save John Pelphrey's job.
With an RPI of 117, not all 18 win teams are created equal. At least that's what we're hoping in the rematch of the SEC season opener, a game Arkansas won 68-65 in Fayetteville. Their resume against good teams proves they won't be intimidated against Tennessee - this is a game the Vols are going to have to play well in to win.
We got plenty of that from Tobias Harris in the first meeting: though he missed the final shot, the Vol freshman had 21 points and 11 rebounds, the first of five double-doubles in SEC play. Arkansas is undersized on the perimeter, but it was 6'9" Delvon Johnson who did the most damage in the first meeting with 17 points and 3 blocked shots. Tennessee was overly aggressive on defense, jumping out too quickly on penetration and allowing easy passes to open men for dunks, which Johnson had three of.
Though Bruce Pearl has talked about working more on three pointers - the Vols are 11th in the league at 31.3% - I liked what the Vols did in attacking the rim on almost every possession against Kentucky. Arkansas trails only Kentucky in the league in shot blocking, but that didn't stop the Vols from winning points in the paint against UK on Sunday, and shouldn't stop Tennessee from doing the same tonight. It should also help the Vols get to the free throw line - UT was just 9 of 14 in Fayetteville, and both of those numbers need to improve.
Tennessee's biggest issue the first time was turnovers - 18 of them, which prevented any offensive continuity from possession to possession. So if the Vols clean it up and don't fall in love with the three, the opportunity to get more than 65 points this time should be out there.
However, this could also turn into the Rotnei Clarke vs. Scotty Hopson show. Both teams are figuring out that huge games from their best players don't always turn into victories: Clarke is averaging 22.8 in the last five games, where the Hogs are 2-3 with a two point win over Auburn. Hopson averaged 23.6 in the six games before het met DeAndre Liggins, but the Vols won only half of them.
Still, Clarke's 44.4% from the three point line has to be respected and feared. If he's cold, the Vols should be okay. But guys who shoot 44.4% are rarely cold.
We've talked a lot about the Vols' offensive production over the last few days - they'll need all they can get from Hopson and Harris as usual, and will obviously need more than the zero points they got from Cameron Tatum and two from Brian Williams in the first meeting. We did get a great effort from John Fields with 8 points and 6 rebounds, but it'll also be interesting to see how much additional playing time Kenny Hall earned for himself with his performance against Kentucky. And if Williams' back is still an issue his minutes should decrease, especially with games coming on consecutive days if the Vols win.
The bubble is an issue, of course...but I'd also really, really like another shot at Florida, and that's who'll be waiting if Tennessee can get the job done against the Hogs. If Tennessee tightens up the defense in the interior and cuts down on turnovers, the Vols should give themselves a great chance to survive and advance. I expect Arkansas to play well. The Vols will need to do the same to see Friday.