It's always better to be in the NCAA Tournament than the NIT...but it is nice to still be playing basketball on this Monday. If the Vols want to play beyond today, they'll have to go through an MTSU team you should absolutely not underestimate. I expect the Blue Raiders to give Tennessee all they want tonight in what should be a very good basketball game.
MTSU is the sort of team we should be talking about on this Monday because they upset two teams and made the Sweet 16, not because they're in the second round of the NIT. This team is fourth nationally in field goal percentage at an astounding 49.6% per game, 24th nationally in assists per game and 28th nationally in assists per made basket (60.3% of the time). And they don't have to score 85 to win: MTSU beat Ole Miss 68-56, beat Belmont 65-62, and won twelve games in a row from December 10 - January 26 while scoring more than 71 just once in that span. That streak ended when they went blow-for-blow with Vanderbilt in Memorial before falling 84-77 in a game in which they shot 57.4% from the floor, 53.8% from the arc, and 72.7% at the line. The biggest difference in the game was that Vandy shot 24 of 30 at the free throw line and only turned it over nine times. But they were right there with Vandy in their house - they absolutely will not be intimidated in Thompson-Boling.
The crowd itself should be a great one, quality over quantity. UT students are on spring break, which may take some of the air out of the balloon, but general admission NIT crowds mean those who care the most about coming get the best seats...and that will surely include some of our blue brethren from Murfreesboro. It should be a unique and fun atmosphere with a game that should match the crowd's intensity.
I'm not sure that we've seen one of these all year where the other team is better than us in all four factors.
The reason why we're talking about MTSU in the NIT and not the NCAAs is because they blew a 25-5 record and a Sun Belt Championship at 14-2 in conference by losing to Arkansas State in the Sun Belt Tournament, a loss made extra painful because the Blue Raiders missed five free throws in the final minute. But they clearly had enough left to handle a good Marshall team in the first round of this tournament, and they'll have no shortage of motivation in Knoxville tonight.
So, we start where we always start...
First, Maymon needs to play. The thought that MTSU is the better team if Maymon doesn't play isn't a myth: the Vols are 59th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, MTSU 61st. That's with Maymon. Without Maymon - or if Maymon and/or Stokes are in foul trouble - the Blue Raiders are clearly the better team.
LaRon Dendy is a 6'9" senior who just put an 18-13 on Marshall. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 14.9 and 7.2 per. JT Sulton goes 6'8" and averages 10.6 and 5.3 per. If Stokes and Maymon both play, the Vols can still have a slight advantage inside...but without both of them, it's pick your poison. Small ball might sound good against an up-and-down team like this, but how does Tennessee stop both of these guys at once? And Yemi Makanjuola may not be ready for this sort of challenge.
But it's not just Stokes and Maymon that have to worry about this part...
Keep MTSU off the free throw line
The Blue Raiders are fourth nationally in free throw rate, getting to the line on 47.3% of their shot attempts. The thin Vols need to defend well without fouling, plain and simple. They don't shoot it that well once they're there - 62.8% is part of what put them in the NIT in the first place - but there's no need to give them as many chances as they're used to getting. The Vols must especially stay away from cheapies on the perimeter while fighting off screens.
Which team has the hotter shooters?
The names to watch from the arc for MTSU are Raymond Cintron (43.8%) and Kerry Hammonds (47.9% off the bench). This team shoots 37.1% from three as a whole, a very healthy number. But they don't take that many of them, averaging just over 13 attempts per game. That's the issue: this team really can score from anywhere, which means the Vols must defend from everywhere.
Meanwhile, Skylar McBee has been lights out recently, and is now at 40.4% for the season with Trae Golden right behind him at 39.1%. McBee's season is the best for a Vol since Lofton's junior year, and Tennessee hasn't had two players shoot it this well since Lofton and C.J. Watson in 2006. The Vols must continue to walk the fine line of knocking down threes without falling in love with the idea, especially if Maymon plays; if Maymon can't go, we may end up locking and loading and taking our chances. But if McBee, Golden, and/or the rest of the UT perimeter players can out-shoot Cintron and Hammonds, Tennessee can keep pace with MTSU if the scoring gets out of hand.
But that won't happen if we...
Want it more.
MTSU will be ready. Tennessee should be fully over missing the NCAA Tournament at this point and just ready to play basketball again. This would not be a good end to a good season. You cannot take MTSU lightly, and if we lose it'll be to a good team...but if the Vols are healthy and play Tennessee defense, Tennessee is the better team, especially in Thompson-Boling.
I don't want to look back on the game that ended our season and say we lost it because we got out-worked or out-hustled. The Ole Miss loss was tough to swallow, but I never had any reason to question the effort - that was two good teams battling it out on every possession. I expect the same thing tonight - and if we don't get it, our season is done. But against what may be the biggest obstacle left in this tournament, the Vols need to be the aggressor and carry the fight to MTSU.