Last year the Vols went to Puerto Rico in November, passed an easy test against UNC-Asheville in the first game, and then played Oklahoma State in a battle of also receiving votes. NC State was waiting on the other side of the bracket and ranked sixth at the time (though that certainly wouldn't hold throughout the season), the thought being if you beat Oklahoma State you'd get a huge benefit from just playing a team that good on a neutral floor.
Instead, the Vols got blasted by Oklahoma State 62-45 and had to settle for beating what turned out to be a pretty decent UMass squad in the third place game. It's been pretty standard issue for us in these preseason tournaments; we play in them every autumn but only once in the last ten years have we won one.
This year it's the Bahamas in the third annual Battle 4 Atlantis. The first field featured #4 UConn as its only Top 20 team and was won by an upstart bunch from Harvard. But last year the tournament really made a name for itself, drawing in Louisville, Duke, Memphis, Missouri, VCU, Stanford, Minnesota, and Northern Iowa. The field is a little lighter at the top this year but still features five teams with legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes, with #2 Kansas the big prize.
The Jayhawks are on the other side of the bracket from us, which means we'd only see them on Saturday, preferably in the finals. To get there, here's what the Vols will have to go through, starting with themselves:
A quick primer on Tennessee
So, many of you may have missed the Vols since their season opening loss at Xavier and are just coming back when big basketball returns this week. Tennessee fell behind by 14 points against USC Upstate in the home opener but rallied late for a nine point win, thanks in large part to a 29 of 36 performance at the free throw line, a huge bounce back after the Xavier debacle. The Vols then took care of business against The Citadel and Tennessee State by a combined 47 points.
Since starting 1 of 17 from the field at Xavier Tennessee has been much more productive on the offensive end. The Vols are still strong in free throw rate, the team's best offensive category last season, ranking 64th nationally. The Vols are currently attempting almost 28 free throws per game and shooting 69.4% at the line, which is right at last year's number. But believe it or not, the Vols are actually 20th nationally in points per possession right now. Early season stats are a little screwy, no doubt, but Tennessee has been much, much more efficient since the first half of the Xavier game.
Jordan McRae has been borderline unstoppable at 21.5 per and 51.9% from the floor. Jarnell Stokes has been doing his thing with a 12/8 average, giving Jeronne Maymon plenty of opportunity to play his way back to full speed. And Antonio Barton has been as good as advertised shooting the three, now 8 of 13 in four games. The expected fast starts by others and the strong play of Barton has allowed Tennessee to bring Robert Hubbs along slowly (16.5 minutes per game) and experiment with Barton at the two thanks to the nice play of freshman Darius Thompson as a backup point guard, currently rocking a 3.6/1 assist/turnover ratio.
This team has been much better and much more efficient, but of course they should've been given the competition in the three game homestand. So we'll see exactly how much they've learned this week, starting Thursday night:
UTEP - Thursday 9:30 PM ET - NBC Sports Network
The Miners are 3-2 with a pair of losses to New Mexico State, the favorite from the WAC. They were 18-14 last year and are among a handful of teams hopeful to win Conference USA now that Memphis isn't in it.
What strikes you about their numbers is balance: eight players average between 6.8 and 14 points per game in the early going, none of them averaging more than 26 minutes. It's skewed a bit thanks to blowout wins over West Alabama and Loyola NO; in their biggest win over Colorado State forward Julian Washburn and guard C.J. Cooper both played more than 33 minutes. Leading scorer McKenzie Moore missed the last game with a concussion and it's unclear if he'll play against the Vols.
The Miners are decent from the outside early at 37.1% from three, but they only shoot about a dozen per game. They're even better than Tennessee at getting to the free throw line, though the new rules are still being figured out by everyone and those numbers could change significantly as the season plays on. They've been good on the defensive glass early led by 6'10" Cedrick Lang who's averaging an 11/7 so far.
These guys have been even better at getting to the line than we have, though here again your mileage may vary depending on ref emphasis. Beyond that, they're very good at sharing the basketball led by guards Moore (if he plays), Cooper, and backup Justin Crosgile who is also shooting 57.1% from three to lead the team.
The Miners are coached by Tim Floyd, he of USC and O.J. Mayo fame. This is his fourth year at UTEP with just one NIT appearance following Tony Barbee to show for it. The Trojans are on the other side of the bracket, which could be fun.
#23 Iowa - Friday 1:00/7:00 PM ET
If we lose we'll play a super-quick turnaround at 1:00, if we win we'll go at 7:00 Friday night.
The Hawkeyes have played a bunch of nobodies and murdered almost all of them. In their 5-0 start they have wins over UNC-Wilmington by 43, Maryland Eastern Shore by 46, Abilene Christian by 62, and Penn by 31. They got tested by Nebraska-Omaha, down seven at halftime and tied with six to play before pulling away 83-75 on November 10. 18 turnovers helped keep it close.
Last year Iowa was 21-12 overall then made it to Madison Square Garden before losing to Baylor in the NIT finals. They returned their top two scorers in senior guard Roy Devyn Marble and junior forward Aaron White. They, like the Vols, average 1.22 points per possession at present and are also great at getting to the free throw line. If we see these guys get ready for a brawl on the boards: Tennessee is fifth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, Iowa 29th. The Hawkeyes are also 12th nationally in assist/turnover ratio. Again, early stats and easy opponents, but they've been very efficient as well and are expected to dance.
Xavier - Friday 1:00/7:00 PM ET
Since beating us to get to 2-0, the Musketeers have beaten Morehead State by 23, Miami (OH) by 26, and aforementioned Abilene Christian by 28. And it's still Semaj Christon getting it done here, 16.4 points and 5 assists per game. Matt Stainbrook, who I thought really hurt us, continues to average nearly a double-double.
Both Iowa and Xavier should end up pretty good this year, so I'll be happy to play either but would love another shot at Xavier because there's no way we're going to start 1 of 17 again or shoot 36.8% at the free throw line. But we'll take whatever we get with a smile.
The Other Half
The Vols will play one of these four teams on Saturday, preferably:
- #2 Kansas, 4-0 with a win over Duke and lottery pick Andrew Wiggins
- Villanova, 4-0 and also receiving votes with three blowouts and a close call over Delaware. Former UT recruit JayVaughn Pinkston has turned into a monster as a junior, averaging 20.3 points in the early going.
- Wake Forest, 5-0 but played no one, currently third in the nation in rebounding
- USC, 4-1 with a 13 point loss at Utah State and a close call against Northern Arizona. The Trojans are coached by Andy Enfield, last seen leading Florida Gulf Coast to a thousand oops in the NCAA Tournament.