After six days off, the time is now for Tennessee Basketball.
The Vols continue to find themselves right on the edge of the bubble conversation. Losses by Seton Hall, Washington, and Northwestern have created even more space. And last night Tennessee got the outcome their RPI wanted as Ole Miss beat Auburn. So far this week everything has lined up to allow the Vols to control their own fate. We don't know if it will take one win or two, but we know for sure that losing tonight is not an option for Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes. And so the biggest game of an already successful Year One for Cuonzo Martin tips off tonight at 7:30 PM ET in New Orleans.
The Vols and Rebels met just two and a half weeks ago in Knoxville. Tennessee was coming off the disappointing loss at Alabama, and we knew a letdown was possible. That's certainly what it looked like as Ole Miss raced to a 15-2 lead in the first six minutes. But from there, Tennessee showed the maturity of a much more experienced team, coming off the deck to outscore the Rebels 71-45 the rest of the way. Tennessee took the lead just seven minutes after the initial Ole Miss run, was down one at halftime, then opened the second half with a now-familiar script: a defensive run, holding the Rebels to two points from 17:29 to 10:57. The Vols put up eight points during that span, then capped it with a three from Dwight Miller, the surprise story of the game. Ole Miss got no closer than eight from that point on.
The weird start and the strong finish plus the play of Miller make it hard to read too much into that first meeting. And here's what else we know: the Vols are on a roll, but so is Ole Miss, who hasn't lost since that night in Knoxville.
Not hard to figure out where we start on this one:
In Knoxville, the point comparison was almost equal: 18 from Maymon and 8 from Stokes, 15 from Henry and 13 from Holloway. But Tennessee crushed Ole Miss on the boards to the tune of 40-25; the Vols grabbed an offensive rebound on 41.9% of their misses, while Ole Miss got it back just 19.3% of the time. In a game where both teams shot exactly 25 of 56 (44.6%) from the floor, the offensive rebounding advantage was huge because it helped put Tennessee on the free throw line: Tennessee went 18 of 26 from the stripe, while Ole Miss was just 7 of 12, and that was the difference.
When it comes to offensive rebounding, that again was Maymon's domain: he had 11 rebounds, 4 offensive to go with 8 more from Stokes. Tennessee's post duo grabbed 19 rebounds, while Henry and Holloway had just 8. Tennessee needs to win this battle again tonight.
Here again, we must point out that as long as Kenny Hall isn't playing, it is crucial that Maymon and Stokes stay out of foul trouble. Dwight Miller was huge in the first meeting as we said, but you can't count on that production to just magically appear again in New Orleans.
Take care of the basketball
The Vols have been lights out in Knoxville and have won three of their last four road games. But when it goes south for Tennessee away from Thompson-Boling, it's usually because we don't take care of the rock. This starts, as always, with Trae Golden, who continues to be among the SEC leaders in assists and turnovers. But it will very much include Stokes and Maymon in the post as Ole Miss comes at them. The Vols are good enough to win at their average of 14 turnovers per game, but when that number starts creeping toward 20 Tennessee's chances go way down. Like Maymon and Stokes staying out of foul trouble, you can write this one in ink for every game the Vols will play the rest of the season.
Who is the x-factor?
If it's not going to be Dwight Miller again, who will step up for Tennessee? The Vols have been getting great production from Maymon and Stokes, and are always at their best when Golden contributes as well. After that, Tennessee has needed one more guy to step up every night, and during this winning streak they've been getting it:
- vs Georgia: Jordan McRae 14
- vs South Carolina: Skylar McBee 18
- at Florida: Skylar McBee 13
- vs Arkansas: Jordan McRae 14
- vs Ole Miss: Dwight Miller 10
- at South Carolina: Jordan McRae 16
- at LSU: Cameron Tatum 9
- vs Vanderbilt: Cameron Tatum 18