When last we met, the Vols were an undefeated feel-good story since the January 1 arrests, and Georgia hadn't won a conference game and hadn't beaten Tennessee since 2004. But the Dawgs quickly and emphatically changed the momentum of Tennessee's season in a 78-63 win in Athens. Including that loss, the Vols are 3-4 in their last seven games, after going 7-0 in their previous seven. We've bookended a three game winning streak with back-to-back losses, which has caused a range of emotions and expectations about this team since the Georgia loss.
Now the Vols leave a rough week in Nashville and Lexington at 18-6, 6-4 in the SEC. Tennessee still has an RPI of 21, a strength-of-schedule ranking of 20 (second best in the SEC) and are a 5 seed this week in SBN's Bracketology, with plenty of breathing room inside the bubble. Even a .500 finish down the stretch should be enough to get the Vols to the dance floor.
But despite back-to-back double digit losses last week, I think there's a unique optimism surrounding this team right now. I'm not sure there's a team in the nation that's seen as much adversity and handled it as well as this one. Coming off a hard-fought loss in Rupp Arena, the Vols have three full days to rest up and get back to full strength, with Wayne Chism and Cameron Tatum still on the mend.
I think there's a sense of urgency with this team, at an appropriate level. The first meeting with Georgia sent Tennessee's season in different direction. Now the second one can either run the Vols' losing streak to three, and leave us scrambling to find a win to right the ship, with only road trips and Kentucky looming on the schedule...or the Georgia game can change the momentum of the season again, and be the start of something special to the finish. And you can sense Bruce Pearl's awareness of the moment too, especially at the end of his postgame radio show from Kentucky, when Bob Kesling asked him about the Georgia game:
"Bring it on. Just bring it on. We're ready. I mean, I'm ready now. I wish we were playing tonight or tomorrow. I'm ready to go. We'll get a scout. I'll work on the bus on the way home, and I'll work all day tomorrow. And I'm going to work everyday until we can get this thing going. We've got to get on a run right now. We've got to get rolling right now. And it starts Wednesday night with Georgia."
Beating Tennessee didn't completely change the momentum of Georgia's season, but the Dawgs are 3-4 in their last seven, just like the Vols. And it's Georgia who's played the most difficult schedule among SEC teams, 10th in the nation. Here's the problem: Georgia hasn't won a road game all year.
Their losses away from Athens were all respectable, until Auburn blew them out 82-63 last week. The Dawgs have also fallen in Lexington, Starkville, Gainesville, and Columbia, and three of those four were close late. Their three non-conference road losses are to UAB, Virginia Tech, and Missouri, all of whom should be tournament teams. At 11-12, if they get this part figured out, they can still make the NIT.
So Georgia has seen good teams (and beaten them in Athens), and played in hostile environments, but they've come up empty each time on the road. If Tennessee wants to keep UGA from picking up another first against them this season, they'll need to do some or all of the following:
The First Eight Minutes
In the first meeting, the Vols were down double figures by the second media timeout (22-12 at 10:05), a scenario that presented itself again in Nashville (22-6 at 11:29). Georgia is a team with some talent that certainly should know they can beat Tennessee...but because they've never won on the road, there should also still be a degree of uncertainty and a lack of confidence.
In games like these, it's a huge advantage if Tennessee can jump on Georgia early, and bring out any "here we go again" vibes that follow teams that can't win on the road around. In the first game in Athens, Georgia's hot start gave them both the cushion and the confidence they needed to stay in front of the Vols; once Georgia got up 10 at that second media timeout, the Vols never got within single digits again.
Tennessee has been a slow starter more often than not in SEC play, and against Georgia's size they won't be able to get a bunch of great looks for Chism early to get them going. So in order to start well, and in order to find greater offensive succcess in general, the Vols will have to....
Outshoot the Zone
Georgia used a 2-3 zone against the Vols last time, and only Scotty Hopson was able to put any fear into them: Hopson went 3 of 6 from the arc and finished with 19 points...and the rest of the team shot 0-10 from three. Wayne Chism took a nasty fall early in the game as well, and though he returned he simply wasn't effective inside as the Dawgs packed it in, and as a result the Vols never threatened.
The Vols have cooled off considerably in SEC play from behind the arc, now down to 32.7% for the season but only 29.2% against conference foes. Last season the Vols were the worst three point shooting team in the NCAA Tournament field...at 31.5%, better than the Vols are shooting in SEC play right now. The days of Lofton and Juanny are but a distant memory now.
The Vols do have two players - Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum - that still qualify as above average three point shooters. But the dropoff from there isn't pretty:
- Scotty Hopson - 39.2%
- Cameron Tatum - 38.9%
- Wayne Chism - 34.3%
- J.P. Prince - 33.3%
- Skylar McBee - 31.1%
- Melvin Goins - 31.0%
- Renaldo Woolridge - 30.4%
- Bobby Maze - 22.2%
When J.P. Prince is your fourth best three point shooter, you've got a problem. And more to the point against Georgia, last time Prince played 22 minutes and took one - ONE - shot. His typical work on the baseline and in penetration was rendered null and void by Georgia's bodies inside the paint, made worse with Chism's injury. Even with Chism at full strength, Pearl will have to find more creative ways to get Prince some shots if the rest of the Vols aren't hitting theirs.
Tennessee doesn't need everyone to be on fire, but the Vols are going to have to hit enough shots to make Georgia - and anyone else who stacks the paint in a 2-3 zone from here on out - respect the outside shot. That means Hopson (and Tatum if he plays) need to hit their shots at their current percentages or better, the Vols need a CHI$$LE or two (but not on eight attempts, like Saturday night), and then somebody - whether that's McBee, Swipa, or one of the point guards - has to knock down the good looks they're going to get against this zone. If Scotty Hopson is the only person to hit a three on Wednesday night, the Vols are going to lose again.
No team has gotten uncontested dunks against the Vols the way Georgia did. 6'9" Trey Thompkins had 21 points and 8 rebounds against UT, and 6'4" guard Travis Leslie almost had a triple-double with 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. These two were brutally efficient, going 17 of 24 combined against the Vol defense.
The Vols played well in a 3-2 zone against Kentucky's duo of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, so it's not that UT can't play post defense. I thought Kenny Hall did a lot of growing up on the defensive end against UK, though both Hall and Chism are prone to foul trouble (which, by the way, aren't we due a friendly whistle now that we're back home?)
How Brian Williams fits into this equation is another factor to be considered. There's some question about Williams' stamina, readiness, and everything else that goes with being off for six weeks. Whoever's in the game needs to make life much, much more difficult for Thompkins than it was last time around, and attack the glass with a fury - the Vols were outrebounded 34-22 in Athens, and that margin has to come down significantly. And questions with Williams lead us to...
Tweaking the Rotation
Bruce Pearl put J.P. Prince at point guard in the middle of the NCAA Tournament in 2008, so he's no stranger to late season adjustments. But at this point, the Vols have played the same number of games with and without Tyler Smith, and with everyone else now back in the fold and (hopefully) healthy, we know what we've got...and now is the time to decide how we're going to use it in the home stretch.
The question of playing Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins together - both coming off great performances at Rupp Arena - got even more interesting in Pearl's press conference on Monday, where he said that any minutes Bobby Maze saw at two guard would come not from Skylar McBee, but Scotty Hopson:
"I don’t know whether I said it before the Vanderbilt game — I think it might have been before the Vanderbilt game, maybe it was right afterwards — that we needed more productivity at the 2. And we still do. Bobby and Melvin both played well again (at Kentucky). Melvin’s played well since he came back with great consistency, so I do think there is a possibility of getting Bobby a rotation at the 2. It won’t come from Skylar McBee’s minutes. It won’t, because Skylar’s still earned his spot. In the first half against Kentucky on the plus/minus chart, I think Skylar led us with plus-9. He had four rebounds at half, six rebounds for the game, and he did a lot of little things in there that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
"I think there’s a chance, because here’s the deal: Yes would I like more production at the 2. If Bobby and Melvin are both going to play well and compete and step up and play tough on the road, then 40 minutes is not enough for them, so the minutes are going to have to come at the 2. And I’m not taking Skylar out of the regular rotation, so therefore Scotty Hopson’s minutes could drop some.
If Hopson loses minutes for this experiment, what will it do to his confidence? And will this experiment even work? Bobby Maze has been more efficient this year, but how will he react to a role with a bigger green light? Melvin Goins deserves more minutes after his performance in Rupp, but is it worth taking from Hopson? While the rest of us try to come up with the answers, Bruce Pearl gets paid the big bucks to push the right buttons. So which ones are they?
The only constants in the lineup are Prince and Chism. Renaldo Woolridge has struggled more than any other Vol in SEC play, but can the Vols effectively get Brian Williams back into the rotation in his place? Would you give Steven Pearl more minutes? (this is a serious question)
Against Georgia, the Vols are going to need whoever is in there to knock down open shots, play strong post defense, and attack the glass. At the end of the day, Georgia is a young team on the rise with a good coach and a fair amount of talent...but they're also still a team that has never won a road game. Tennessee doesn't need to give them another first.
For Wednesday and for the rest of the season, can the Vols make a run? Last year, Tennessee was destroyed in Rupp Arena, and rebounded with their very best basketball down the stretch. This year, the Vols leave Lexington with a "good loss". It feels like this team is right on the cusp of its best basketball...the Vols have good pieces, now can they put them all together?
This game is very, very important. If the Vols lose to Georgia, it's going to get a little tense, and we'll be looking for relief on the road. But Tennesssee can also use this game to get one step closer to locking up a tournament bid, and more than that, swing the momentum of the season in the right direction...and maybe, just maybe, tomorrow night will be the beginning of something special.
It starts Wednesday night in Knoxville, 8:00 PM EST, SEC Network. A few tickets are still available here.