This game shouldn't have mattered, but it does. The Vols should've locked up an NCAA Tournament bid a long time ago, but we didn't. And even if we wanted to take solace in the fact that Carolina is just 5-9, 2-8 in their last ten games, and the proud owner of a 15 point home loss to Auburn, now we go to Columbia without Brian Williams, out with back problems and questionable for Sunday's showdown with Kentucky.
Nothing is certain with this Tennessee team anyway, but the absence of Williams and the presence of Sam Muldrow - on his senior night, no less - has moved this one from an assumed victory to our comfortable "well, this should be interesting" home sweet home. Muldrow had six blocks and six rebounds in the first meeting in Knoxville, but BWill was an integral part of the defensive effort that held him to just 3 of 14 shooting.
So it's big boy time for three guys who have probably been waiting for an opportunity like this. John Fields has been a starter for most of the year, but Williams still played the most minutes. Kenny Hall and Jeronne Maymon - who may both be starting this time next year - have spent most of this season in their warmups, though both bring great potential to the floor. Without Williams, all three should play, and the Vols need two of them to step up.
I feel like if you combined them into one player, he'd be all-conference: the athleticism of Hall, the "I'm here to cause trouble" factor with Maymon, and the expert shot blocking of Fields. Against Muldrow, the Vols will need a little bit of everything to get the job done inside.What we also shouldn't count on is Bruce Ellington going 3 of 13 from the arc like he did the first time in Knoxville. But it's the attempts that are most certain to go down: Darrin Horn apparently told the freshman to calm down, as he's in the midst of a 7 of 48 (14.6%) stretch from the arc in his last six games, and has taken only five in each of the last two.
Compare that with Cameron Tatum, who's on a 6 of 33 (18.2%) tear in his last eight games. The three point shooting on this team now looks like this:
- Hopson 38.4%
- Harris 33.3%
- Bone 32.3%
- Goins 31.9%
- McBee 31.0%
- Tatum 28.7%
- Golden 20.7%
- Team Overall: 31.3%
(Not pictured: Tyler Summitt, 100%)
The more we look for answers, the more we're going to point to Tatum's inconsistency. Last time he scored in double figures? That's right: 13 against South Carolina.
This game matters for the NCAA Tournament, and a win will also keep Tennessee alive in the race for the East two seed and a first round bye in the SEC Tournament. If the Vols win tonight, they'll need Alabama to hold serve at home against Georgia and Florida to win at Vanderbilt, all to set up Sunday's game with Kentucky for the two seed.
But it's also worth noting that this game will matter for South Carolina too - the Gamecocks are trying to make the NIT, and this win could really help their case. Garnet and Black Attack likes Carolina in a close one.
Who do we like? We like not guessing, because this team is a nightly exercise in the dartboard. But I do know that if the Vols are going to hit close to center, they'll need somebody new to step up in the paint.