As usual, the sirens scream danger with these guys on the schedule. It's the third and final installment of a two-for-one deal orchestrated by Bruce Pearl, and so far, Oakland is winning on the scoreboard and in their bank account. Two years ago the Vols were at their absolute peak after destroying #3 Pittsburgh on the road. 72 hours later the Golden Grizzlies handed Tennessee their first loss of the year 89-82, opening a Bruce Pearl Timeline sized hole in our season. Last year the Vols made a quick stop in Michigan on their way back from an inspiring performance in Maui. Oops: 89-81 Oakland, beginning a brutal December stretch that would come back to haunt the Vols on Selection Sunday.
Two years ago Oakland won the Summit League at 25-10, getting bounced as a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament in a close loss to Texas. Last year the Grizzlies finished third at 20-16, falling in the semifinals of the CIT Tournament. As you know by now, they're stronger than the average mid-major bear.
As usual, this year's installment won't be intimidated by the opponent or the venue. After a 96-62 season opening win over Albion, the Grizzlies will play their sixth road game in a row tonight. They're just 2-4 overall with a squeaker over Texas Southern and losses at Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette, and just played at Michigan State in a 70-52 loss on Friday. But they also had an 18 point lead at Pittsburgh in the second half before blowing all of it and losing in overtime. They're due...but hey, so are we against these guys.
We don't have to deal with the guys who have killed us in 2010 (Keith Benson, 26 & 10) and 2011 (Reggie Hamilton, 35 points). But Oakland's next three leading scorers are back from last year's squad, and they're joined by Providence transfer PG Duke Mondy, averaging 16.0 points and 2.7 steals per game. Mondy can be taken advantage of, as he's currently rocking a 3.8/5.2 assist/turnover ratio.
Junior guard Travis Bader is the team's leading scorer at 17.2 ppg; he'll play almost the entire game, currently averaging 38.7 minutes per. Sophomore Corey Petros averages a 15-7 and really hurt us with 13 rebounds in just 29 minutes in last year's game. And Drew Valentine also averages double figures and had 15 against us last year. These four guys account for 81% of Oakland's points.
Let's go to the board!
If you're new to our basketball previews this season, a quick word: effective field goal percentage more accurately measures how well a team shoots by giving more weight to made three pointers (FG Made + 0.5*3P/FG Attempted). Turnover percentage measures how often a team turns the ball over in comparison to its total field goal and free throw attempts. Offensive rebounding percentage is how often a team gets its own miss. And free throw rate is determined by how often a team gets to the line in comparison to its number of shot attempts. They are all tempo-free stats, better enabling us to compare teams regardless of how fast/slow they play and thus how many points they may or may not score per game. For more info on the Four Factors, click here.
So as you can see, Oakland has a slight advantage in oreb%, but the Vols have a huge advantage in free throw rate. Both of these categories are advantage Jarnell Stokes. The Vols are actually 10th in the nation in free throw rate right now, with Stokes and Trae Golden both getting to the line 26 times in just four games. Here again, the UMass game was a great blueprint for what the Vols can do, playing the aggressor and using Stokes to get to the line 33 times as a team.
This is also where the Vols can show clear improvement: getting there more often is great, but you've got to do better than 64.2% at the line. Last year the Vols shot 70.2% at the line, the best single season number since BuzzBall in 2004. Improvement starts with Golden, who shot 83% at the line as a freshman and sophomore but is currently struggling at 69% this year. And Jarnell Stokes can do better than 50%, which is where he currently lies, as does Kenny Hall. Josh Richardson is shooting just 60%. Plain and simple, we stop missing so many free throws, we start pulling away more often. And as the Vols' biggest strength will continue to be attacking the basket inside, I don't see our free throw attempts going down when we're playing good basketball. Interesting stat to watch every night: do we take more free throws or three pointers? Last year the final count was 699-649 free throws. It's not always going to be that way: when Lofton was here we took more threes than free throws, and rightfully so. But this year, free throws (currently leading 109-59) should blow away threes. Play to your strengths. UMass was a good start, tonight can be another step in that direction.
We learned the hard way last year that these November/December games really matter. On our third and final try, we should finally have enough to put this team to bed, but none of us will rest easy until it's done. It's a big launching pad to a huge early stretch: Oakland tonight, at Georgetown Friday (last seen beating #11 UCLA then taking #1 Indiana to overtime), at Virginia next week, then home against Wichita State, currently 6-0. When you add in our date with Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico, this schedule has more bite than we thought it did.
But Tennessee looked ready to bite back against UMass. That needs to continue tonight against a team we owe. Will the Golden Grizzlies complete an improbable three year sweep against the Vols? Or can this Tennessee team finally be the one to shake free from Cinderella's grasp?
7:00 PM ET - Fox Sports South & ESPN3. We'll be here live for the game thread as well. Go Vols.