Fittingly, the Vols meet UConn in the "We Back Pat" game. There are still a few tickets available for as little as $15 from UT's official site. While there's no particular rivalry between us on the men's side, it's worth pointing out that the last time we faced these guys as defending National Champions, we bounced them in the second round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.
In our last meeting, the Vols stood toe-to-toe with UConn for 32 minutes, down just one with eight to play. But UConn closed out the Vols in an eleven point victory; Tennessee was strong against Kemba Walker (6 of 17 in 40 minutes), but the Huskies found a way to win without him. There is no Kemba Walker this time, but UT will still have to deal with Jeremy Lamb (leading scorer at 17.7 per) and Shabazz Napier (14.6 per). This team is deep, with nine players averaging at least four points per game.
UConn is coming off a home loss to Cincinnati, 70-67 on Wednesday night. It was their third loss in five games, all to less-than-stellar Big East foes: Seton Hall beat them by a dozen, and Rutgers followed up with a seven point win, both on the road. So this team has certainly been vulnerable on the road; their only road wins of the season have come at South Florida and at Notre Dame, both 11-8. Then again, we're 8-10.
If we've learned nothing else, we should expect a close game. Tennessee played excellent halfcourt defense in Athens, the fourth game in a row we've seen that from the Vols. The offense simply has to get better for the Vols to win these games - you can't shoot 12% from the arc, 50% from the line, and turn it over 20 times and beat anybody. But I don't think we'll see anything that poor two games in a row.
So as has been the case all year, we come into this feeling like we've got a chance to win.
So, a couple things obviously stand out here. UConn is hitting the offensive glass with a vengeance, getting the rebound on an absurd 40% of their misses. We've seen this plague Tennessee a couple of times this year, especially against Pittsburgh. The primary culprit here is freshman center Andre Drummond, who goes 6'10" 270 and will be the responsibility of one of Tennessee's post rotation. Drummond averages 3.2 offensive rebounds per game. He also averages 2.6 blocks per game and the Huskies as a team average 7.2 blocks per game (fourth nationally; Kentucky is first at 9.3), so of course watch to see how Trae Golden is affected getting into the lane again. The Jeronne Maymon/Kenny Hall/Jarnell Stokes rotation should be able to hold their own having already faced Anthony Davis, but keeping Drummond off the offensive glass will be huge.
And yet again, we find a gap between Tennessee and their opponent when it comes to getting to the free throw line. Of course, it doesn't matter how often you go if you shoot 50% when you get there, but I think most of us will continue to call for the Vols to shoot fewer threes and get the ball inside to Maymon, Stokes, and Hall more often. Not only can the Vols get more opportunities at the stripe, they can also do well to get Drummond and/or Alex Oriakhi in foul trouble. Again: the Vols averaged 23.5 free throw attempts in their first six games (thru Oakland). Since then, the Vols have averaged 13.4 free throw attempts per game. And it's a troubling trend in losses: 6 of 8 against Pittsburgh, 9 of 16 against Austin Peay, 4 of 6 against Charleston, 4 of 7 at Memphis, 5 of 7 at Mississippi State, 7 of 14 in Athens. There's no way a team with this much power inside should be going to the line as little as we do.
UConn isn't necessarily a high scoring team (71.7 per game), but they are extremely efficient. The Huskies shoot 47.9% from the floor, 33rd in the nation. Tennessee has been very good recently at knocking a team's average way down - that's where it has to start Saturday. If the Vols keep doing what they've been doing on that end, the Vols will be there again. But to push over the top - and you can copy and paste this pretty much every night - the Vols have to take better care of the basketball, and either must be hot from three, or must win the battle inside. With Stokes in the lineup, I like our odds winning in the paint better than I do from the arc, though against UConn's size and playing at home we'll probably need some of both. But you want to see this team reward themselves for playing such great defense by taking care of business on the offensive end as well.
Forget Athens, forget the rest of this murderous January schedule, and forget the NCAA and NIT Tournaments. This team will continue to be best served by focusing on simply the task at hand and winning one game at a time. And this would be a very big and very nice one to get. Defend well again, and it'll be there for the taking. Will the Vols be poised enough to be the victor this time around?