Tennessee vs Virginia Preview

USA TODAY Sports

An ACC/SEC showdown has turned into a much-needed get for two teams looking at life on the bubble.

Last week we broke down Tennessee's path to the NCAA Tournament, and on the surface nothing has changed other than an expected win over Morehead State. Only time will tell if the factors which led to that victory - increased tempo, more balanced scoring, and the sudden emergence of Derek Reese - will continue to become part of this team's identity.

The challenge steps back up a notch tonight as Virginia comes calling in a return date from a painful-on-multiple-levels 46-38 Cavalier victory last season in Charlottesville. UVA looked like a tournament team until it lost 5 of 8 down the stretch and ended up in the NIT.

The Vols and Cavs were both supposed to be tournament teams this year, but it hasn't gone exactly as expected for either of us. You know our story; in the most recent Bracket Matrix (from Christmas Eve) Tennessee is among the Next Four Out. Meanwhile Virginia has been on the Who's Who of Mid-Majors Tour, with wins over Davidson, Missouri State, and Northern Iowa along with a three point loss to VCU. UVA also lost to #8 Wisconsin 48-38, then followed it up with a shocking 75-72 loss at Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers was still out with a broken collarbone.

So Virginia enters at 9-3, currently an 11 seed in the bracket matrix and has an RPI of 56. This is their last non-conference date before ACC play opens; the Vols still have Tusculum on Saturday before SEC play begins next Tuesday night at LSU.

If you didn't like last year's game, avert your eyes: going into the weekend Virginia was second in the nation in PPG allowed (54.2), third nationally in points per possession allowed (0.86), and seventh nationally in field goal percentage allowed (37.0%). They've already held five opponents under 50 points.

We know those numbers don't lie because they happened to us last year: 28.8% shooting, frustrated into taking 19 threes and making only three of them, while UVA shortened the game and we got the line just eight times.

This team doesn't run: they play great defense and then they crash the glass with everybody, getting the defensive rebound 75.7% of the time, 10th nationally. It's in direct opposition to what we do best on the offensive glass, grabbing the rebound 43.0% of the time, 4th nationally.

Translation: this isn't a great matchup for us.

Where can they be taken advantage of? They're not particularly great at taking care of the basketball, with a dead even assist/turnover ratio. Their scoring is incredibly balanced with four players averaging between 9 and 12 points per game. They should've beaten VCU but were betrayed by a familiar tune of 1 of 8 from the arc and 14 missed free throws in a three point loss. They lost to a Wisconsin team that's currently 12-0 and ranked #4 (#1 in RPI) because nobody does slowdown better than the Badgers, winning in Charlottesville despite 28.8% from the floor because they held UVA to 23.4%. And they got behind against Green Bay and had to push, jacking up some of the numbers, but a common thread remains: in their three losses Virginia is 7 of 36 (19.4%) from the three point line.

Every point will be precious, and the game at Green Bay is UVA's only true road game so far this year, so a good post-Christmas crowd would be very helpful to make Knoxville a strong environment. A Tennessee team trying to learn to push the ball couldn't have asked for a worse opponent right now, but we still have the size to handle anybody on the glass and that includes this bunch. Winning this game will require a maturity we haven't seen from this Tennessee team yet: patience and execution on the offensive end, taking advantage of every opportunity you get because a slowed game means far fewer free throws to help a physical team. And the Vols will need to bring their defensive A+ game to match UVA's performance and give themselves a chance if/when things aren't working on the offensive end.

It's the kind of team you hate to play and hope to just survive. The Vols could certainly use that right now.

7:00 PM ET, ESPN2. Go Vols.

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