The Vols will play three games in the next four days in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and could end up with a huge RPI boost if the Vols win and the bracket breaks the way we think it will. Before we get ahead of ourselves, the fun starts today with a first round matchup against UNC-Asheville.
You'll remember the Bulldogs from last season's near-miss in a potential 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA Tournament. UNCA gave Syracuse all they wanted before some dubious officiating and clutch free throw shooting gave the Orange the victory 72-65. What you may not remember is UNCA gave us all we wanted and led by eight with ten minutes to play before the Vols came back in a 72-68 victory during our December to forget last season. All of the stars that night have moved on - Tennessee's two leading scorers were Cameron Tatum and Renaldo Woolridge, while UNCA was led by annual Pilot Rocky Top League standout J.P. Primm and Chris Stephenson. In two games this season - a 67-59 loss at UNC-Wilmington and a 71-61 win over Western Carolina - the Bulldogs have been paced by 6'4" senior Jeremy Atkinson, averaging 20.5 points in those two contests. More good news, though it's bound to change eventually: UNCA is currently shooting 8.3% as a team from the three point line. Considering a large part of UT's comeback in last year's contest was a nine minute scoring drought the Vol defense imposed on the Bulldogs, cold shooting won't do Asheville any favors in Puerto Rico.
Tennessee and UNC-Asheville will tip today around 12:30 PM ET on ESPNU. The tournament opens at 10:30 AM ET with Oklahoma State and Akron, who are on the same side of the bracket as our game. If the Vols win today, they'll face the OSU/Akron winner at 10:30 AM on Friday (also ESPNU). The third game will be on Sunday; if you're optimistic, the championship is at 6:30 PM ET on ESPN2.
Oklahoma State fought off a challenge from UC-Davis in their opener, breaking open a tie game with 5:10 to play for a 73-65 victory. The Cowboys received one fewer vote than the Vols in the preseason AP poll, though last week's close call removed all of their votes from the board. Oklahoma State is one of those teams we keep running into: they handed us the first loss of the Bruce Pearl Era in Oklahoma City in December 2005, then we got revenge in one of the great Dane Bradshaw moments in Nashville in December 2006, one of the best individual basketball games of the Pearl Era. Then the Cowboys won the rubber match in a two point game in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The 2012-13 edition of OSU is young - three freshmen played 24+ minutes in their opener - but you always take a program like theirs seriously.
If it's not OSU, Akron lost to Coastal Carolina in overtime in their opener, then waxed someone named John Carroll 97-53. This team beat Mississippi State in Starkville last year and won the MAC regular season title before bowing out to Ohio in the conference tournament and losing to Northwestern in the NIT First Round. Stronger than your average mid-major.
The other half of the bracket includes a couple of teams with names that sounded better about ten years ago in UMass and Providence, plus a Penn State team that was 4-14 in the Big Ten last year. So everybody and their brother is picking #6 NC State to be there on Sunday night. The Wolfpack are in year two under Mark Gottfried, whom you'll remember from eleven seasons at Alabama with five straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2002-2006, the 2002 SEC title, and a brief stay at number one in the AP poll in 2003.
Last year NC State was 22-12 at the end of the regular season. Though just 9-7 in the ACC, 9 of their 12 losses came against ranked teams, including a near miss against UNC in the ACC Tournament. Perhaps no team has benefited more from their NCAA Tournament run in this year's preseason poll than the Wolfpack: as an 11 seed, they blew out San Diego State in round one, took down three seed Georgetown in round two, and lost by three points against two seed and eventual title game participant Kansas in the Sweet 16.
NC State has four starters back and added freshman guard Rodney Purvis, who scored 16 in their season opening win against Miami (OH) 97-59. Lorenzo Brown will be one of the best point guards Trae Golden faces all year, if it comes to that. 6'9" C.J. Leslie is their other marquee talent, which should make for an interesting matchup against Jarnell Stokes, again, if it comes to that.
The Wolfpack are the overwhelming favorite in this thing; Cuonzo Martin would have to be disappointed if the Vols fail to make it to the finals Sunday night. If things get tight for Tennessee on Selection Sunday again this year, it would be a huge boost to UT's RPI just to play NC State on a neutral floor. But I also think we're all of a mind that this Tennessee team can expect to be there against anyone in the nation. Even without Jeronne Maymon? Well, let's make it to Sunday night and find out.
It starts today at 12:30 PM ET against UNC-Asheville. Go Vols.