Three months from now a one point loss at Georgetown could look really good. But as all of us who watched Friday's game will attest to, nothing about a 37-36 loss looks good in the moment. So here comes the opportunity to wash the taste out of our mouths, because you're often only as good as your last game in college basketball anyway right? And this is Tennessee's last game for eight days thanks to final exams; the Vols play in Charlottesville tonight then don't return to action until December 13 against Wichita State in Thompson-Boling.
Standing in the way are the Cavaliers of Virginia, last vanquished by the Big Orange in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. UVA started the year 1-2 with close losses to George Mason and Delaware, but they've been on fire since: five straight wins, including 60-54 at Wisconsin and the other four by anywhere between 16 and 40 points. This is year four of the Tony Bennett Era at Virginia; Bennett took Washington State to a pair of NCAA Tournaments and a Sweet 16 before heading to Charlottesville, where he put the Cavs in the dance last year for the first time since we beat them and only the second time since 2001. They were blown out by Florida as a 10 seed in round one, then lost six of their seven top scorers from last year's squad.
The one constant is 6'6" junior Joe Harris, this year's leading scorer at 16.5 per and the team's leading three point shooter at 46.3% from the arc, averaging five attempts per game. 6'8" Akil Mitchell is the only other double figure scorer, averaging 12.6 per game. That's right boys and girls: another low scoring affair seems very much on tap tonight.
Virginia allows just 52.9 points per game - that's fourth nationally. Again, it's helpful when your biggest marquee foes thus far have been the kings of slowdown from Wisconsin, but it's still an impressive stat eight games in. And it's not just pace: UVA allows its opponents to shoot just 36.9% from the floor, 28th nationally. If you're looking to feel better about the Vol offense, tonight may not be your night.
But that doesn't mean we can't win.
The Cavs are shooting more efficiently than Tennessee, no doubt. You play a 37-36 game, you weren't very efficient. But Tennessee is still one of the better teams in the nation (41st to be exact) at getting to the free throw line as you can see in the chart. The bad news is, we're 300th nationally in free throw percentage at just 62.9%, so getting there so often hasn't translated into wins.
Without Jeronne Maymon, the formula is still likely to be the same: work Stokes, then make the most of what the defense gives you. If Jarnell can get more than the three shots he put up against Georgetown, great. If not, Tennessee has to be more efficient with the basketball when Stokes isn't taking the shot. Jacking threes is the path to the NIT and .500 basketball. Our other guys have to be better at attacking the zone with penetration and ball movement. I'd wager they might've worked on it in practice since Friday.
It's a big chance to right the ship, but not an easy one: UVA was listed as a five point favorite on Thursday night. Lose this one, and you've gotta sit with it for a week and you start counting losses way too early. But win, and you re-establish momentum and confidence in an offense that desperately needs it; great defense will carry you most of the way, but great defense is also much easier to play when you're winning ballgames. Let's win this one.
7:00 PM ET - it's listed as an ESPN3 exclusive, so heads up, you might want to figure out a way to get that from your computer screen to your television between now and then if you so desire. Go Vols.