On a day when the SEC favorites get early road tests with Florida at Arkansas (1:00 PM ET, ESPN2) and Kentucky at Vanderbilt (3:30 PM ET, CBS), Tennessee will look to continue to build momentum with Texas A&M in Knoxville (6:00 PM ET, Fox Sports Net). It's a rematch of the longest game in school history from last season, a four overtime affair which saw the Vols lead by no more than four points for the first 57 minutes before pulling away thanks to late McB43 dagger 93-85. Just watching the highlights again made me tired. (Point of interest: even in six minutes of YouTube from one game you can tell what a difference it makes having Jeronne Maymon back on the floor, just in floor spacing to begin with.)
Tonight is the first two of this year for the Vols and Aggies, with a return date in College Station on February 22. The two leading scorers from last year's marathon are gone with Trae Golden at Georgia Tech and Elston Turner playing overseas. Both teams are off to 10-4 (1-0) starts. Texas A&M started 6-0 then lost a pair of close games on a neutral floor over Thanksgiving, 73-67 to Missouri State and 55-52 to SMU. After a 12 point loss to Oklahoma in another neutral site game the Aggies were rocked at home by North Texas 61-41 after shooting just 30% from the floor. But every year when SEC play opens you think you know something about a team and then they prove you wrong right away, and on Wednesday night that team was Arkansas in College Station. The Razorbacks came in 11-2 and a fringe NCAA Tournament pick but got wiped out 69-53 by the Aggies.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's non-conference schedule is looking better every day. You've still got Wichita State, now 15-0 and ranked sixth in the land. But no one is making Tennessee look better than Xavier, 0-3 in the Bahamas and 13-0 everywhere else, meaning the Vols now have a Top 25 RPI win on their resume. The Musketeers have a huge test Sunday at Creighton in what is now a Big East game. And we also apparently did Virginia a favor; the Cavaliers responded from the 35 point beatdown we gave them to beat Florida State on the road by a dozen, putting them at 11-4 with an RPI of 30. With three ACC teams on our schedule there are a lot of games we have little to lose in; Wake Forest is currently 11-4 with an RPI of 69, and NC State is at 66.
The Vols appear to have played themselves back into a control your own destiny situation for the NCAA Tournament, and that destiny looks pretty reasonable right now. And this team's larger goals - the SEC Championship and a tournament seed that gives you a chance to dance past the first weekend - can come back on the table in a hurry with Rupp Arena calling one week from today.
But first thing's first: beat Texas A&M.
Texas A&M is by definition a middle-of-the-pack SEC team. Offensively the Aggies rank in the top three in the league in only one tempo-free statistical category (assist percentage). They only rank in the bottom three in a couple of categories, but they are ones Tennessee excels at: the Aggies are the worst offensive rebounding team in the league and 12th in free throw rate. They are 11th among SEC teams in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and RPI.
The strength of Billy Kennedy's team is defense: second best in the SEC and 24th nationally in scoring possessions allowed, a category the Vols lead the nation in offensively. Texas A&M leads the SEC in field goal percentage defense, giving up just 37.7% from the floor, and is best in the SEC and 11th nationally in points per possession allowed. Like Virginia this is a stiff defensive challenge on paper, though the Aggies really struggle on the glass. This team is led by 6'9" junior Kourtney Roberson at 10.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Point guard Alex Caruso leads the SEC in assists at 4.9 per game, one full assist per game better than Missouri's Jordan Clarkson. This is a typical Josh Richardson assignment. If Texas A&M is able to clamp down defensively in Knoxville, Tennessee will need to match their defensive intensity and keep the Aggies bottled up as well.
The Vols lost five-star freshman Robert Hubbs for the season this week with shoulder surgery. You could tell he was hurting, averaging five points per game and shooting just 28.1% from the three point line. Tennessee will certainly need him next year, but for now the Vols need one of their bench players to help spread the floor by knocking down the three ball. When Tennessee has Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton on the floor at the same time, we are incredibly hard to defend. When one of those guys comes off, who can step up in Hubbs' absence and knock down shots to keep the heat off everyone else? Derek Reese should get more minutes here, and the Vols need backup point guard Darius Thompson, who has been exceptional for a freshman in every other way, to shoot better than the 3 for 17 from the arc he brings into this game.
Tonight will be another challenge for a team that's found so much success with up-tempo basketball. If we can run right past them the way we did Virginia, great. If not, this one will require equal intensity on the defensive end and plenty of poise (and good free throw shooting) to avoid frustration. Playing at home with an increased advantage as the students return, this is a game that could test Tennessee but ultimately one we should win. Last year the Vols took four overtimes to take down the Aggies, a win that gave UT five in a row and continued to build critical momentum. Tonight the 2014 Vols will again look for five in a row with the Aggies in the way, and again look to build critical momentum. Maybe a few less overtimes this time, but we need the same result tonight.