When Bruce Pearl came to Knoxville in 2005, one of the things he wanted to do was upgrade the Vols' non-conference schedule. And in five years, the Vols have done just that: Sunday will be the ninth time the Vols have faced a ranked non-conference opponent in a non-tournament setting under Pearl's watch. Along the way, the Vols have played home-and-home dates with Texas, Ohio State, and Gonzaga (and will face UConn in 2011 and 2012), a neutral site series with Oklahoma State, and neutral site games against Xavier and Marquette. And Pearl helped restart the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry.
But this challenge will be greater than anything Pearl's teams have faced. Playing the #1 team in the country isn't new for the Vols (Florida and Ohio State in '07, Memphis in '08). But playing them under these circumstances certainly is.
The story on this game in preseason was a virtual rematch of last year's contest: both teams should have returned all five starters from Kansas' 92-85 win in Lawrence last January. Instead, Kansas got better by adding freshman stud Xavier Henry, and the Vols got worse thanks to guns, drugs, and general idiocy. The Jayhawks are undefeated and the best team in the nation; the Vols have played one game without Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams, and Melvin Goins, and while the Vols were impressive against Charlotte, Charlotte is not Kansas. Between the distractions, the uncertainty, and the opponent, Sunday is Bruce Pearl's greatest challenge yet.
The keys to Sunday's game (CBS - 4:30 PM EDT):
Who will slow down Sherron Collins?
No one will stop him. Last year, Collins dropped 26 points on the Vols and got to the free throw line 14 times, and Tennessee had no answers and no one who could guard him. On Wednesday, when Cornell pushed Kansas to the brink, Collins responded with 33 points in familiar fashion: getting to the basket and getting to the free throw line (13 of 14).
The Vols have already struggled with Mike Gerrity from USC, and I think it's fair to say that Collins is a step up. UT's problems with opposing guards from last season doesn't make you feel any better. And even if the Vols find a way to keep Collins from going off, he's got plenty of good options to distribute to - Collins also had 9 assists in last year's game. Last year at Kentucky, the Vols experimented with a box-and-one against Jodie Meeks to prevent a repeat performance of dominance...and the rest of the Cats shot 72.7% from the floor. And Kansas' supporting cast is even better.
Wayne Chism vs. Cole Aldrich
Chism, who is now definitively Tennessee's best player, stepped up big in the Vols' first game without Tyler Smith and Brian Williams in the post, with an 18-5-6-5-3 stat line. The Vols are going to need him to step up big again on Sunday. Last year, Chism and Aldrich both put on a show, but Cole's was a little better:
- Chism: 17 points, 8 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 steals
- Aldrich: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks, 1 steal
Honestly, you'd probably take another draw here, as Aldrich is a great player. But the Vols got a combined 31 points and 16 rebounds from Tyler Smith and Cameron Tatum in this game last year, and that won't be around to help this time. If Tennessee wants to entertain victory, Chism needs to outplay Aldrich. Wheezy usually plays best against the best competition, and this may be as good as it gets this season. Wayne must lead.
Scotty Hopson, we need you.
Even before the arrests, we thought the Vols were merely a good team that wouldn't be great until Hopson made "the leap". Against the best teams on our schedule, Hopson has been a non-factor: a combined 6 of 19 against Purdue and Memphis, with 7 turnovers. He got 17 against Charlotte, but most of those were in the game's final minutes when it was already decided.
He's capable, as he continues to lead the team in scoring at 13.5 ppg. But he's not consistent, and four men down, the Vols are going to need that to change sooner than later. The Vols will also need him defensively: with the rest of the team trying to figure out how to stop Collins, Hopson should draw some of the work on 6'6" Xavier Henry, who leads Kansas in scoring with 16.1 ppg. It'll be interesting to see how Pearl uses J.P. Prince, who's probably the most capable perimeter defender left, but Hopson is going to have to step up - on both ends of the floor - no matter how he's used. The Vols need Hopson now for more than just trying to be great - we need him to get to March, and we need him to give ourselves any chance in this game.
Three Pointers: Who's Hot, Who's Disciplined?
It's a depressing thing putting together this preview, because there are two dozen ways Kansas can beat you, and all of them are frightening. Aside from Collins driving to the basket and Aldrich underneath, there's this: Kansas is the best three point shooting team in college basketball.
They shoot 47.7% from beyond the arc, which isn't even fair. And it's not even the result of having a Chris Lofton and a JaJuan Smith to carry the team...look at this nonsense:
- Xavier Henry 32 of 68, 47.1%
- Sherron Collins 28 of 67, 41.8%
- Tyrel Reed 16 of 39, 41.0%
- C.J. Henry 11 of 18, 61.1% (plays only 7 min per game)
Even the guys who almost never shoot them are great: Marcus and Markieff Morris are a combined 8 of 20 this year, and Brady Morningstar is 4 of 8 in his first five games back. If his name isn't Aldrich, he can shoot the three.
The Vols are slightly up this year, currently at 33.7% from deep after living with 31.5% last year. And the Vols are slightly more disciplined this season, taking 19.2 three pointers per game after firing 21.4 per last season. But the Vols have only one active player that shoots over 40% from three (Scotty Hopson, 24 of 56 for 42.9%).
It would be great, of course, if the Vols came out on fire. But if that doesn't happen, will Tennessee be disciplined enough to not get into a three point shooting contest with Kansas? The Vols getting hot and Kansas going cold would be great, but it may be more important to be disciplined.
If Kansas isn't cold, for the Vols this game will quickly turn into...
Last year, Kansas jumped on UT 25-9, and the Vols never really threatened. When the Vols worked it down to 9 at halftime, Kansas pushed it back to 16 again. And when the Vols worked it down to 7 with 4:35 to play, Kansas put them away.
Tennessee can't afford to get too far behind against this team, especially early. The game is sold out and there will be 22,000 in orange eager to believe in and get behind this team. The Vols need to keep the crowd and themselves in the game, and just give themselves a chance in the last five minutes. In Kansas' two road games this season, they won at UCLA by 12 and at Temple by 32, and this bunch won at #3 Oklahoma last year - these guys know how to play on the road. The crowd is more of a factor in picking us up than intimidating them...but the Vols need all the help they can get. And that includes guys like Renaldo Woolridge and Kenny Hall playing big in what will be the biggest game of their lives.
Look, Kansas is great and we're full of uncertainty. And it's possible that this turns into one of those mid-90s Kentucky games, where the Vols get drilled on their home floor and everybody stays to watch anyway, because it's rare you see a team as good as Kansas in action. If that happens, Tennessee can still be okay - no matter what the #1 team in the country does to them, Pearl can still help them bounce right back as SEC play starts. You can't truly judge this new bunch by what Kansas does to them.
But I believe the Vols will come to fight, and Pearl will have them ready. In Bruce's tenure, the Vols are an impressive 9-7 against higher-ranked teams, and among those seven losses are final possession affairs with Ohio State in the Sweet 16, Memphis last season, and Purdue this year. I believe this team will rally together and play well...and they'll have to against this team.
No matter what happens, the real story of this season will be told in the 16 SEC games that follow, as this new team tries to go dancing again. Given the circumstances and the opponent, Sunday will be the most difficult test that Pearl and this team have faced. And I'm interested to see what these Vols can do.