Tennessee wasn't playing great and neither team was getting a bunch out of some of their best players, but both teams were playing hard and relatively clean. Tennessee had a one point lead at halftime, then fought back from an early five point Wichita lead in the second half with a thunderous slam from Jordan McRae. Then we fought back from the ensuing technical foul and finally, finally got Jarnell Stokes going at the ten minute mark with consecutive dunks, his first points of the game, to give the Vols a 44-41 lead.
From there, it was all Wichita. Tekele Cotton made an incredible block on Jeronne Maymon, then converted an and-one on the other end of the floor to give the Shockers a 46-44 lead they would never relinquish. Five straight points from McRae a few minutes later brought the Vols back within a deuce at 51-49, but a Josh Richardson missed layup gave Cotton another chance to hurt us with a wide open three, and he buried it for a 54-49 lead with six to play. And Tennessee would get no closer the rest of the way.
Credit the Shockers for taking away Tennessee's biggest strength on the offensive glass. The Vols entered today's game getting the rebound on 45.3% of their misses, the second best percentage in the country. But today the Vols had just nine offensive rebounds on 32 misses (28.1%). Also credit Wichita State for showing no mercy at the free throw line, 18 of 24.
There are common threads for Tennessee in the loss, starting at the line (15 of 24, 62.5%). Free throws aren't the reason we lost, but it once again didn't help. In UT's three losses the Vols are 45 of 82 (54.8%) at the stripe, a number that is killing a team with so much size.
Officiating continues to be no friend to Jarnell Stokes, but that's his burden to carry by now and everyone knows it. Stokes got chased early with two fouls, came back with the pair of dunks, and then did little the rest of the way. He finishes with 8 points, but the Vols needed so much more from him today and there were opportunities to get it, but he and several others couldn't finish at the rim.
That means Jordan McRae finishes with 26 points but no one else had double figures. Maymon had a tough 9/9 but simply won't be the same player he was with no vertical lift on his knee. Everyone knows that too and it's still clearly an asset to have him on the floor this way. But the Vols also got zero from Antonio Barton, 2 of 8 from Josh Richardson, and 1 of 4 from Darius Thompson. Tennessee needed more than McRae today and didn't get it.
The loss, by itself, isn't so bad. In several spurts you could easily be convinced you were watching two really good teams today. It's the failure to get a signature win that really hurts Tennessee.
The Vols are 6-3, 77th in RPI. But there is little to help that number between now and a January 18 date at Rupp Arena. Tennessee gets home games that sound good against NC State and Virginia, but both teams aren't as good as we thought they'd be (which simultaneously makes them as close to must-win as it gets in December). The Vols open SEC play at LSU on January 7 against a Tiger team that could be good, an argument that might fit a couple other SEC teams, but when March comes knocking the Vol resume is going to be clearly lacking in big wins from outside the league.
UT only plays Kentucky once but does get Florida and Missouri twice in league play. But I think it's now going to require an SEC Championship type number in league play to make the Vols a highly seeded NCAA Tournament team. Even a respectable number in league play could have the Vols closer to the bubble than we'd like depending on how the rest of the SEC shapes out.
So no, all is not lost today, and we got beat by a good team. But gone is the immediate chance for the Vols to prove themselves, and now consistency is required to get this thing home. We've seen it before, but we have to see it now, not later, for this year to be different.
The journey continues Wednesday night at home against NC State.