Saturday was in many ways an exercise in burning the film and moving on, but the footage was also too revealing in some spots to throw it all away. On the road against a great team playing elite defense, the Vols got another strong performance from Jarnell Stokes and a better-than-it-looked afternoon from Jeronne Maymon, those two combining to go 10 of 17 from the floor. The rest of the Vols, all of whom played non-post minutes at some point, went 5 of 39 (12.8%). Jordan McRae was 1 of 15 and forced almost everything in the second half. But really who can blame him when your teammates go 1 of 7 (Antonio Barton), 0 of 7 (Josh Richardson), and the bench combined for 3 of 10. 26.8% from the floor is the second lowest shooting percentage of the Cuonzo Martin Era, topped only by the 17 point loss to Oklahoma State last year (26.0%). The team as a whole was 1 of 19 from the three point line, which will beat no one and get you killed at Florida. It was the worst three point shooting display since going 0 of 8 against Duke in Maui, and given the number of attempts and the more competitive nature of that game I think we're all willing to say Saturday was as bad as it's been from downtown.
ESPN Stats & Information added some detail to the futility in their recap: 41 points is the fewest the Vols have scored in an SEC game in 15 years, and the Vols scored less than 45 points for just the fifth time in those 15 years. The 15 years qualifier is how long it's been since Kevin O'Neill was around and we knew what we were getting into. But since four of the five times we've scored less than 45 since then have come under Cuonzo Martin - 36 at Georgetown, 38 at Virginia, 41 on Saturday, and 44 at Kentucky in 2012 - we also know in a sense what we're getting into right now.
What was eye-opening about the Florida game wasn't the loss or even necessarily the blowout, but the how: Tennessee had 13 turnovers and just 15 made baskets. UT's backcourt looked inept at handling the full court press and scoring in any fashion against Florida's defense. We know what we've got with Stokes, we know Maymon will at least get in there and bang. Jordan McRae has done far too much good for this university for anyone to kill him for Saturday's performance, which was again in part because he got no help from his teammates on the perimeter. Plain and simple, Tennessee has to get something from Barton, Richardson, and the bench, or this team isn't able to get the job done against elite opponents.
Tennessee lost its last chance to make a big move in the metrics the selection committee will care about, but there's plenty of basketball left and still chances for big wins. Now third-ranked Florida returns to Knoxville on February 11, but before then the Vols have four games in front of them. And the next important opportunity comes calling immediately, as Ole Miss returns to Thompson-Boling Arena tonight.
Here's another reminder: since the tournament expanded to 68 teams, no major conference team has been left out with a Top 50 RPI. Heading into Tuesday night's action the Vols sat at 52, with Ole Miss just behind at 58. We're still a week away from the mythical Last 10 Games and the bubble watches that come with February basketball. But both teams know how important tonight is.
For Tennessee, a home loss - even a home loss to a good opponent like the Rebels - would be devastating to far more than the RPI on the heels of Saturday's blowout. Tennessee needs a win to get the whole thing moving back in the right direction. For Ole Miss, who plays Florida and Missouri once each and both in Oxford, tonight represents their biggest chance to get a road win that will really move the needle without having to win in Rupp Arena next week. It is a very important date for two teams who will open bubble season in the thick of the conversation, and only the winner will have a real chance to play their way above the talk.
Ole Miss has won three straight against the Vols, including the SEC Tournament overtime affair in 2012 that knocked UT off the bubble, and a clean sweep last year featuring an 18 point win in Knoxville on the strength of 32 from our friend Marshall.
Henderson remains a volume shooter, continuing to do his best Kobe Bryant impression by averaging 15 shots per game (Jordan McRae, for comparison, averages 13.1). And he is far and away the league leader (and fourth nationally) in jacking threes, firing up 184 to lead the SEC by 57 attempts (!) despite being suspended for three games this year (!!).
He's actually the third best shooter on the team; Anthony Perez has given them some nice minutes off the bench, but it's been Jarvis Summers who has really come along, scoring 18.0 points per game to go with Henderson's 18.7 and knocking down 33 of 60 (55.0%) threes this year. Their one-two punch has been the Ole Miss answer to losing Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway from last year's team, making them much more vulnerable inside but much more dangerous outside.
This team loves overtime: a pair of tough non-conference home losses to Oregon and Dayton and an OT win over LSU. The Rebels also have a three point loss at Kansas State, a home setback to Mercer, and a loss at Starkville which they just avenged by 19 points on Saturday, their fourth straight win. Their strength of schedule currently ranks in the Top 100, but their best win so far is LSU in Oxford. That again makes tonight very important for them.
Ole Miss is third in the league in pace of play and leads the way in threes attempted, made, and percentage (37.6%). They're also strong in assist/turnover ratio, Jarvis Summers and Derrick Millinghaus leading the way there. Interestingly they also have a way of coaxing teams into playing their game: the Rebels have given up more three pointers than any other SEC team. The good news for Tennessee: this is the worst rebounding team in the league. The talking point will be Marshall Henderson vs Jordan McRae, but the real strength for UT tonight is not in McRae winning that battle, but Stokes and Maymon dominating the way they're capable of.
We know what's at stake for us. Tennessee can't afford another loss, especially not right now. This is a good opponent with a player we love to hate and definitely owe. The Vols are still plenty capable of finding their way to the dance floor, and plenty capable of being a good team that can advance if they can put some distance between themselves and Saturday. We've seen flashes and moments - LSU just beat Kentucky and the Vols trounced that team in Baton Rouge - but we've also seen some bad basketball, leading one to believe the Vols are capable of both outcomes every night. If we want this season to move forward, the Vols have to get the right outcome tonight.
8:00 PM, SEC Network. Go Vols.