When the Vols beat Florida 79-63 in Knoxville late last month, Joel said "At this time, I don't even know who's up next or when the next game's played, but I do know this: Whatever and whenever it is, it's a must-win. It must be a must-win, or we just might find ourselves right back where we started."
Since then, Tennessee went 3-2 in a five game stretch against lesser opponents, squeaking one out at Arkansas and blowing out Georgia and Vanderbilt at home, but suffering a costly loss late at Auburn, and then getting blown out themselves last time out at Ole Miss.
The two losses have robbed the Vols of a chance both to claim sole possession of first in the SEC East standings, and to feel comfortable about their chances of making the NCAA Tournament field. And so now that the schedule is cranked up to eleven again, it's no longer a motivational tool: if the Vols want to win the division...if the Vols want to survive...it's must-win. Elimination basketball starts now.
And perhaps the best ray of hope I can give you about the situation is that the other three teams in this race should be feeling exactly the same way.
The players and coaches attritube the Vols' struggles no longer to youth, but to the enigmatic lack of focus. Well, if you can't find focus under these circumstances, we'll instead be trying to find it in the NIT. It starts Saturday, and then will play out over the next two weeks with games against Mississippi State and road trips to Florida and South Carolina. Each team still in the hunt. Each team in must-win mode. The Vols must match the intensity, and for a team that's sometimes frowned upon for playing to the moment...now would be an excellent time to do just that.
So as we head up I-75 (or I-77 if you're me) for our old friends in the Bluegrass, to play in an arena we've won in four times - ever - can the Vols even up the series with Kentucky, and take an all-important step towards March? We take look at the keys to victory in a very, very big basketball game...
Tyler/Chism/Prince > Meeks/Patterson?
First of all, it's inconceiveable that Jodie Meeks scores 54 on us again, so let's not dwell on bad memories. A Sea of Blue linked to a blurb this morning that Patrick Patterson practiced on Thursday, but was still questionable.
If PatPat doesn't play, Tennessee should win. Period. If we're the kind of basketball team we think we are, there's no reason this Kentucky team without Patrick Patterson should beat us.
But let's assume that he does play. UK's problem all year has been an inability to find offensive production outside of their two big guns. Tennessee's best players have always been Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism (with five star emphasis if Patterson sits out), and J.P. Prince - the most efficient player in the SEC - has been everywhere the last few weeks. If form holds and both teams have struggles with the rest of their rotation, can Tennessee's triumvirate outplay Kentucky's dynamic duo?
Last time, of course, Jodie Meeks ouplayed everybody by himself. But lost in the 54 point barrage were great performances by Tyler (19 points) and Wayne (18 points, 9 rebounds), while Patterson finished with 9 points and 12 boards. No other Kentucky player scored in double figures in that game. If Meeks doesn't turn into Superman again, precedent is there for the Vols to have success inside. Which team's best players will have the best game?
Can someone make a name for themselves?
For either team. The way both team's seasons have gone, one player stepping out of the shadows and into the light could make all the difference in this game. Bobby Maze has done it a couple of times. Perry Stevenson had a tremendous game against the Vols last season. Maybe there's someone else we're not even thinking of.
And then there's Scotty Hopson, in his return visit to the Bluegrass. The meeting in Knoxville wasn't friendly: 1 of 6 shooting, 5 points, and part of a host of Volunteers who got torched by Meeks. Hopson's season stats are maddening, because when you look at the totals, every so often you see what we all kept hoping was his breakout game: 16 against Gonzaga in Orlando, followed by six weeks of sub-par play. 19 and 11 in back-to-back wins against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, followed by 1 point against Memphis. 20 against the Gators, followed by 2 at Arkansas. Hopson shot 2 of 8 in each of the last two games...maybe he's due again.
No team's style of play has given Bruce Pearl more problems than Billy Gillispie's Kentucky teams. Again, Meeks' 54 point explosion kind of negated that situation last time, but this is still a Tennessee team that is at its best with turnovers and a faster pace, and that hasn't been a game Kentucky has let them play.
Though it's blasphemous to suggest that Pearl hasn't done a good job in Knoxville, and probably factually incorrect to put Gillispie on the hot seat...let's just say that both have had happier days. And so for both, this is a huge chance to gain momentum in the home stretch. The winner stays at the front of the SEC East race and gets a bump in their tournament standing. The loser hears the voices again.
For Pearl, can the Vols find a way to slow down Jodie Meeks? He's not going to score 54...but I don't want to see him scoring 30 either. And will the Vols continue to jack threes at their season-long 30% clip and be satisfied, or will they take advantage of a slower pace and get the ball inside to their two best players? For Gillispie, especially if Patterson doesn't play...can he find the best rotations and put the right guys on the floor at the right times to capitalize? This is a big moment for both teams, and for both coaches, to show what they've learned.
This game is special, always has been. It's amped up this weekend, despite both teams coming off deflating losses, because this is one of the more important Tennessee/Kentucky games in recent memory. Both programs have had better teams, sure. But both teams need this game in so many ways and for so many reasons, as we've outlined. For Pearl and the Vols, it's a chance to stay even with Kentucky under this administration. It's a chance to squeeze another win out of Rupp Arena. And it's a chance to keep this season moving forward. There's no more time to wait, and no more cupcakes left on the schedule until it would be too late to matter. The most important stretch of basketball for this team starts now...and it'll last as long as we make it.