So, what do we make of this game?
Do we just tip our hats to a Memphis team that almost burned the building down with its scalding hot shooting percentage? The Tigers hit 56.4% from the field and 76.2% from three. Coming in, the Vols were fifth in the nation in three point percentage defense, allowing opponents to make just 25% of their threes. Only UNC-Asheville (50%) had shot better than 46% against the Vols this season; UNCA and Memphis are the only two teams to shoot 50% or better against the Vols in the last 24 games, going back to Kentucky's win in Rupp Arena last season. The 85 points the Tigers scored tonight are the most Cuonzo's Vols have given up since 89 at Oakland last season.
The damage was threefold: Joe Jackson was the best player on the floor with 20 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 4 steals, and a blocked shot in 37 minutes. Jackson was really unguardable and created for his teammates all night; Adonis Thomas (18 points) and Geron Johnson (16 on 7 of 11) were the biggest beneficiaries. The Tiger talent was on display, no doubt.
One game isn't going to make anyone give up on Cuonzo's defensive style; many of the shots Memphis hit tonight were just good shots, especially the backbreaking threes that slowed down UT's second half run. Credit Memphis; they do deserve it.
What do we make of the fact that Tennessee scored not just 80 points in the game - the second highest total of the season (83 against UMass); UT didn't score 80+ after The Citadel game in December 2011 last season - but the Vols scored more points in the second half (52) than we have in four entire games this year? Was it the Memphis pace, which led to lack of defense?
What in the world do we do with how most of those points came about: 20 from Josh Richardson, 18 in the second half, previous career high of 12? 26 from Jordan McRae, a career high, with 21 in the second half?
A team that has struggled to put it in the basket all season suddenly found itself in a real live shootout...and, hey, the Vols almost came back and won it. Should we be encouraged by this at all?
And what about the fact that the comeback and really most of the second half happened without Trae Golden on the floor?
This is twice in a row that Cuonzo Martin went away from his junior point guard, and this time he put Golden on the bench and left him there. The bulk of UT's rally from down 21 to down 4 came with walk on Brandon Lopez on the floor with McRae, Richardson, and big minutes from the Kenny Hall/Jarnell Stokes post duo. And when the Vol wings are scoring, you can see what it does for the post players: this was the best game Hall and Stokes have played together, something Cuonzo affirmed in the postgame. Kenny Hall went for 13 and 11, and Jarnell Stokes - the victim of acting, not basketball on a ludicrous charge call in the first half that sent him to the bench and left him with just 25 minutes on the night - still had 11 and 9.
So we lost, and that sucks, and no one hates losing to this bunch more than I do. But part of me also wants to be kind of encouraged - the defense will be there and teams won't shoot this well against us most nights. I'm not surprised we fought back. But I was surprised at the way it happened, with such a barrage from McRae and Richardson, such strong interior play from the posts...and definitely with no Trae Golden on the floor.
And so going to SEC play, what does that mean for this team? What's the biggest takeaway from tonight? Perhaps it's the fact that we're asking so many questions at all; this team has a chance to be good even without Jeronne Maymon, but after tonight I feel like we're not exactly sure what that good is going to look like and who's going to be on the floor to carry it through. Better basketball could be on the other side with the answers, but how long will it take the Vols to get there?
Stay tuned: SEC play opens Wednesday night.