Oklahoma State received one fewer vote than Tennessee in the preseason AP poll; while Tennessee seemed confident coming into this game, these two teams seemed pretty even to the unbiased eye. Both teams were down a man due to injury in the post.
But this game was never really close: Oklahoma State built an eight point lead early and never let the Vols get any closer, building an eleven point halftime lead all the way to twenty and never letting Tennessee entertain victory in the second half. The first loss of the season for the Vols comes with a familiar script from last season: a solid defensive effort is completely negated by an abysmal offensive performance. Oklahoma State shot just 41.9% from the floor and scored only 62 points, but the Vols were awful: 26% from the floor, equally bad in each half, finishing with just 45 points. Only Kentucky in Rupp Arena last year held the Vols to fewer points.
Tennessee lost its two postseason games last season because the offense flat-lined in the SEC Tournament and the NIT. One knocked the Vols off the bubble, the other ended our season. Each time, Tennessee went consecutive media timeouts without hitting a shot, and all too easily settled for the threes that opposing zone defenses were happy to give them. It was the central lesson the Vols needed to learn this offseason, and it's clear there is still work to be done here. Again, Jeronne Maymon didn't play and that will help. But just from a philosophical standpoint, Tennessee must improve.
The Vols launched 23 threes and made only five of them. There is no reason a team with this much talent inside should take that many threes on a regular basis, especially when they're not going down. Trae Golden had just two assists but attempted eight threes. That ratio has to change.
Credit Oklahoma State for really frustrating Jarnell Stokes inside, especially with double teams; the big fella finished just 2 of 8 from the floor for 7 points. The Vols were also whipped on the glass to the tune of -11. And on a morning where whistles were active, Oklahoma State was the aggressor, attempting 31 free throws while the Vols got just 21.
It's the first loss, and this team can and will certainly improve. But struggling in exactly the same fashion you did last year against an opponent that appears to be of equal talent is very frustrating. The Vols will face the loser of #6 NC State and UMass on Sunday at 4:00 PM ET in their final game in Puerto Rico. We need Jeronne Maymon to get healthy, but we need more discipline and better flow on the offensive end no matter who is playing. This team's identity will always be defense, and that was there today for the most part. But our offense has to create a stronger identity in 2013 than the one we saw in 2012, or the Vols won't be able to move forward.
Let's bounce back on Sunday. Go Vols.