If you were curious what this team's best basketball might look like, that was it.
Percentage wise I'm not sure it'll get better than that all year. 35 points is the largest margin of victory in the Cuonzo Martin era, and the Vols flirted with school records in three point and free throw shooting before late misses left UT at 11 of 18 (61.1%) from the arc and 22 of 25 (88.0%) from the line.
Those numbers would've been impressive against any team, and at first glance you'd expect them against an opponent like Tusculum. But the fact that they came against Virginia - a team we would've celebrated a 40-39 win over - makes tonight's effort truly special.
Virginia was a national top ten defensive team in points allowed, field goal percentage allowed, and points per possession allowed. And the Vols eviscerated them 87-52.
It was never close, thanks in large part to the continued emergence of Josh Richardson. The one-time defensive specialist tied a career high with 20 points despite being hampered with foul trouble. With Tennessee leading 6-4 Richardson ripped off 15 of the Vols' next 21 points in building a 27-10 lead in a six minute span. He finished 4 of 4 from the arc, joining Antonio Barton and Jordan McRae who both went 3 of 4 to form an incredible shooting trio. Tennessee again pushed the pace and again reaped the benefit, forcing Virginia into a dozen turnovers while only giving it away themselves six times. And the Vols played well for 40 minutes, outscoring the Cavs 48-26 in the first half and 39-26 in the second.
McRae led scorers with 21 and Barton added 14, but the other big story was Jarnell Stokes at the free throw line: 12 of 14 to finish with 20 points, pacing the whole team to finish 22 of 25. Tennessee's previous problems were more complicated than "make free throws!", but it's worth noting if this team had shot just slightly better than 60% it would've beaten Xavier the first time and this would all be a little less painful.
It certainly wasn't painful tonight. And here's the thing: Tennessee isn't going to shoot 60+% from three and 85+% from the line every night. But the fact that they did it tonight against such a great defensive team and got it from so many different contributors suggests the transformation we've all known this team needed is very possible. The expectations on this team weren't wrong, and for the Vols to play this well in December - better than they ever played in the non-conference in Cuonzo's previous two years - allows us to hope they can start hitting their stride before February this time around.
It was just one win, but it may very well have been a revelation. It should at least lift the weight this program has been under after another slow start, because what we saw tonight was certainly something new. We'll find out how much truth is in it going forward: the Vols finish off the non-conference Saturday against Division II Tusculum College, then open SEC play in what will be a huge game at LSU January 7.
There is indeed hope for this team, and tonight it was very much alive and not just well, but better than we've ever seen it under Cuonzo. This win deserves to be celebrated, and then let's see how far playing like this can take us with conference play on the horizon.