It's the final countdown.
The Vols got what they needed Thursday night, as Georgia beat Kentucky and additional bubbles threatened to burst at Virginia and UMass. Now the stage is set for the final day of conference play on Saturday, where the Vols can still earn a double-bye for the SEC Tournament. But more importantly, Tennessee gets one last chance to make a statement against an increasingly weak bubble, facing a tournament team from Missouri on Senior Day. We'll say goodbye to Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall, and hopefully say hello to our eighth win in nine games.
So the good news that comes with Mizzou's 22-8 record is the 20 wins that came in home or neutral site games. The Tigers have won just twice on the road all year: at Mississippi State, and at South Carolina. Near misses abound: overtime at Rupp, a deuce at Arkansas, a deuce at A&M, three points at LSU, and all of those since January 30. But Missouri is yet to breakthrough on the road, and this is their last chance.
Meanwhile, the Vols have been hot in general and white hot at home. Since early January losses to Memphis and Ole Miss in Knoxville, Tennessee has won six straight at home, along the way taking down the Florida Gators, tournament hopefuls from Alabama, and blowing out Kentucky by 30. Cuonzo's Vols are 14-2 in SEC play at Thompson-Boling Arena, and one of those losses was to last year's National Champion.
However, don't be fooled into thinking this is going to be easy because Mizzou is bad on the road and we're good at home. Because here's what Missouri is good at:
- Field Goal Percentage: 46.3% (3rd in the SEC)
- Free Throw Percentage: 74.6% (1st)
- Points per Possession: 1.12 (2nd)
- Points per Game: 77.7 (2nd)
- Every Single Stat Related to Rebounding: 1st in the SEC
The point in bold is directly related to the presence of Lawrence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi
. The two combine for almost 15 rebounds per game, and with both at 6'9" it raises serious questions about Tennessee's ability to play its four guard lineup. This isn't like going against Florida's bigs when Erik Murphy
is stepping out to shoot threes. Both of these guys bang inside, and that means bigtime work for Jarnell Stokes
and presumably Kenny Hall. Add in 6'9" Tony Criswell
and we've got a hoss fight in the makings on the inside.
The good news here is Stokes and Oriakhi have met before, and Jarnell took him to school in his very first start: a 16-12 for Stokes, while Oriakhi had just 5-7 before fouling out in the Vols' win over UConn last season. Jarnell has to be looking for redemption after his 1 for 10 performance at the free throw line at Auburn, and we'll need him to be there Saturday.
Still, Stokes can only cover one of those guys. Even if the Vols try to stay small and put Josh Richardson
on Bowers, that leaves a Phil Pressey-sized hole in our defense. The Mizzou point guard scores 11.9 per game, but more importantly he runs the show: 7.1 assists per game, distributing to the other five double figure scorers this team has. It comes mostly from his creation and offensive rebounds; this is an average three point shooting team that gets less than a quarter of their points from the arc. Missouri plays a quick pace and often capitalizes on it; again, more so at home than on the road, but when they get going they can absolutely run away from you. How will the Vols choose to defend the Tigers?
On the other end, this is not a particularly great defensive team. Missouri allows 40.7% from the floor and is 7th in the SEC in both points per possession allowed and defensive eFG%. It will be interesting to see what Tennessee can do if the tempo continues to increase, because that's kind of how we've been playing of late anyway, thanks in large part to the great play of Jordan McRae
and the usually good play of Trae Golden
Also of note: getting to the line continues to be our thing, still first in the league (and now 16th nationally) in free throw rate. Missouri doesn't block a lot of shots despite their size, and they are much more fond of fouling than the Gators were. Tennessee is the second best rebounding team in the conference in terms of percentage - we absolutely have to play like it Saturday. In a huge toughness battle inside, in Knoxville we have to win it.
I expect a really good ballgame. Missouri is going to dance, but could lose a double-bye with a loss and hurt themselves on the seed line with zero quality (or even average) wins on the road for the year. Meanwhile, Tennessee can continue to play themselves in while everyone else is playing themselves out, keep up the good basketball that got us this far, and make a huge statement heading to the SEC Tournament. It's the most recent installment of the most important game of Cuonzo Martin's career. If the Vols can control the glass, get to the free throw line, and take advantage while we're there, I expect our best players to carry us the rest of the way home.
Saturday, 4:00 PM, ESPN. Let's do it.