It's Round One? Round Two? Whatever.
Last year Tennessee faced UMass in Puerto Rico, and Jarnell Stokes notched a career high 24 points in an 83-69 Tennessee win. The Vols got to the free throw line a bunch - 33 times to just 14 for the Minutemen - and held point guard Chaz Williams to 5 of 15 shooting and budding post star Cady Lalanne to just five points. Williams and Lalanne still represent the biggest threats for the Minutemen - 15.8 points and 7.0 assists for Williams, 11.4 points and 8.0 rebounds for Lalanne.
To learn more about the Minutemen, we traded questions and answers with Jimmy Kelley of SB Nation's MAC blog Hustle Belt, hustling so much they still cover UMass Basketball even though the Minutemen only participate in football MACtion. Their questions, our answers are here. We asked them:
1. How has UMass changed from last year to this year? Tennessee's win over UMass last year sticks out in the minds of Vol fans in looking at this matchup - how have the Minutemen grown since then?
The biggest difference is the belief and maturity of this team. Everyone has been, there done that, won some, and lost some. Even the younger players like Trey Davis and Tyler Bergantino, both sophomores, have seen everything once and know how it feels like come up short of your goals. Everyone on that roster wants to bring UMass back to where it was in the '90s. Especially Chaz Williams. Williams has been one of the most electrifying players all season and has really been the most consistent player UMass has had. But to answer the original question, maturity has made UMass more resilient than last season.
2. Is there a noticeable difference in UMass's play between their 16-1 start and their 8-7 finish, or was it just better competition in Atlantic 10 play?
The competition has a lot to do with that, for sure. But really the biggest difference has been Cady Lalanne. He was one of the most dominant players in the country earlier in the season, putting up double-doubles almost effortlessly. Once teams figured him out, though, everything changed. Without a consistent second option, Williams found himself bottled up and with stiff competition opposing him. Lalanne is still an 8-point, 8-rebound, 3-block kind of player, but that's a far cry from the 15 and 13 type of guy he was early on.
3. Many Vol fans haven't seen any UMass games this year. Who are the players we should watch for?
Just watch Chaz Williams, really. He's the heart, soul, arms, legs, fingers and toes for UMass. The Minutemen have won games when he has played poorly and lost when he has played well, but everything really starts and ends with him. Past that the guy you have to keep an eye on is Maxie Esho. He is the sixth man and brings a ton of energy and athleticism to the floor. He can defend three positions and rebounds well for his relatively small size. He won't hurt you outside, but he can hurt you on the glass and in transition. Derrick Gordon
is fun to watch on defense because he's a water bug and Lalanne will be entertaining if he brings it. Those four guys make everything go for UMass
4. This is the first tournament appearance for UMass since 1998. Do you expect that to have any impact on this team? How have they handled pressure situations this year?
Like I said above, this team is beyond feeling any pressure. The program is right on schedule for where it wanted to be and these guys have known for a year or so they were going to be the group that was going to bring UMass back to the tournament. They boast three seniors in the starting lineup alongside Gordon, who led Western Kentucky to the dance before transferring. The nerves may be there for the first few minutes, but I wouldn't expect them to fold or crack under the pressure of the stage.
5. UMass will win if: Tennessee will win if:
UMass will win if: Williams and Lalanne score over 15 points and they can score the ball from the outside. If Raphiael Putney and Trey Davis
are factors in this game offensively, the Minutemen should be able to outscore the Vols.
Tennessee will win if: They slow the game down, contest every shot, and keep Williams from taking over the game. Tennessee has a lot of good size and options for scoring the basketball, but if they let Williams set the pace and control the game they will have a tough time winning.
UMass started the year 16-1 and 3-0 in the Atlantic 10, their only loss 60-55 to Florida State. In that run UMass beat tournament teams Nebraska, New Mexico, and BYU on neutral floors, and beat Providence at home in overtime. They also beat St. Joseph's in the A-10 opener.
From there, things got a lot bumpier. UMass finished the rest of the year just 8-7, including three losses to non-tournament bound A-10 schools. They did win at George Washington and at home vs VCU back-to-back in mid-February, but have been inconsistent since then.
Like Iowa, this team will run. UMass was first in the A-10 and 22nd nationally in pace of play, and is very big on getting points from inside the arc while averaging 76.1 points per game. Chaz Williams also led the Minutemen to a conference best 15.2 assists per game. The good news for Tennessee: while they appear to have all the scoring and tempo prowess of Iowa, they're nowhere near as potent on the glass. That's a big advantage for Tennessee.
UMass got out and played some triple digit games this year, but teams like Saint Louis were also able to slow them into the 60s. UMass beat LSU 92-90 in November; the Tigers played the second fastest pace in the SEC, but Tennessee slowed them to a halt in Baton Rouge 68-50. I think the key again for Tennessee is to worry less about tempo and more about defense, and especially with what should be a greater rebounding edge this time the Vols can have enough to get it done even if outside shots aren't always falling.
The Vols may be tired but will also be playing with the confidence of a team that's won six of seven with a near miss against #1 Florida, and now the confidence of a team coming off its biggest win of the year, with additional comeback and clutch momentum to boost. The Vols are playing great basketball right now. We get more of it today, we give ourselves a chance to advance again.
2:45ish PM ET. Let's keep dancing. Go Vols.