This is not a post about why the Vols should've gotten a better fate than a 6 seed. This is a post about what the Vols need to do to make the best of it.
March is about matchups, and we'll look specifically at San Diego State tomorrow. But if the Vols are going to win one game or the whole thing this year, they'll need to be involved in all of these things.
Some things are obvious: defense and rebounding win championships, and are central to UT's success:
"Defense and rebounding has been our thing; it's been our formula for success,'' Pearl said. "When we rebound, and when we play defense, we win.''
The numbers bear that out: The Vols are 24-0 when out-shooting their opponent, 19-0 when their opponent shoots under 40-percent and 22-0 when the opposition scores 69 points or less.
But beyond playing good defense and rebounding well, what else? The search for consistency may be fruitless, and after 33 games we may be what we may be...but what we are is capable of beating the best in college basketball when we answer the following:
1. Where's Wayne?
If matchups are key, the Vols have to put their best player in the best position to win. It may not be the same position every night: Wayne Chism has shown considerable offensive skill on the block, but against teams with a dominant big man, the Vols like to put Chism on the perimeter even more than usual, to draw the defender out (read: Greg Monroe). Against teams with a big front line (read: San Diego State), how will the Vols use Chism?
Chism has played more games in a Tennessee uniform than anyone in the history of the program. This is his final chance to put one more memory on the board. You need your best players to play like your best players to win in this tournament. Wayne is our best player, and Wayne is our leader. He's a veteran post defender and a versatile scorer. Can he avoid foul trouble? Can he stay disciplined on the block and take advantage when Bruce Pearl puts him inside? And can he put a CHI$$LE! or two on the board, one last time? Chism's positioning and decision-making plays directly into:
2. Three Point Shooting
Obviously, we want to make them all. But in the real world, what's more important is how many we're taking.
The Vols shoot only 31.3% from beyond the arc, which makes sense, because we shot 31.5% with basically the same personnel last year. But the difference this year is the number the Vols are taking: Tennessee averages 18.8 three pointers per game this year, down from 21.4 last year. The Vols have been more selective and more disciplined in taking threes this season, a difference that can pay off in March: against Oklahoma State in the first round last year, the Vols took a whopping 33 threes. We hit right at our percentage by making eleven of them, but when you note that Chism took nine (made three) in that game, and we lost by only two points, you have to wonder if a more disciplined gameplan wouldn't have led to a trip to the second round.
Tennessee needs someone to be hot from beyond the arc - and we've seen a bunch of different guys play that role this year - but we don't need the whole team trying to figure out if it's their turn today. Opponents have had a habit of sitting back in zone and daring the Vols to shoot. We're taking the bait less, and we're winning more despite scoring fewer points: this year's squad averages only 73.6 points per game, but is four games better than last year's team that averaged 78.4 per contest. We may not be the most disciplined team in college basketball...but at least we're making progress.
You either value every possession in March, or you go home and watch someone else do it in the next round. There may be a few matchups where it works to the Vols' advantage to run and play a faster tempo. But it will never work to Tennessee's advantage to jack a bunch of threes and take our chances. No matter the pace, the Vols must play smart, value the possession on both ends of the floor, and make three point shooting a part of what we do, not the thing we put all our hopes on.
You don't need me to tell you that Scotty Hopson has been the difference between good and great since day one. If we get end-of-the-regular-season Hopson, we're very dangerous. If we get SEC Tournament Hopson, we're fairly average. All we can do is hope, wait, and see.
Look, we all want to burn the film of that last Kentucky game, right? So let's forget about it, and look at what Tatum did in the six games before that, where he was both healthy and back in the full rotation.
Against Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State, LSU, and Ole Miss, Cameron Tatum averaged 10.7 points in 19.2 minutes. He can do it with threes (3 of 5 at Florida, 4 of 6 vs. Ole Miss), but he can also do it with penetration. He may not be as talented as Hopson, but he's much more consistent, especially per minute.
When the Vols take Hopson and/or Prince off the floor, it's often hard to find an offensive rhythm. But Tatum can be the spark off the bench that keeps things flowing, or at least helps the Vols keep pace while those other guys rest. Tatum is Tennessee's most important bench player, and he has to keep playing the way he's been playing (sans Kentucky, which is true for everybody). This guy can be a weapon off the bench. We need him.
5. Play with confidence, not arrogance
If we look past SDSU - and thanks for all your help, national media - we're going home. But if the Vols get past the Aztecs, that underdog/play-to-your-opponent thing we do so well will work in our favor from there on out. Unless there's a huge upset, we'll only be wearing the white jerseys once in this tournament.
We beat Kansas and Kentucky. Every player and every coach on this team should go into every game knowing they can beat the team on the other end of the floor. And everyone on this team must stay focused on the possession at hand, and take nothing for granted, from San Diego State to wherever we go from there.
The seniors on this team can carry us. Wayne Chism is a great player, J.P. Prince will fill the stat sheet and has shown that it doesn't always have to include turnovers, and I'm not sure why Bobby Maze is suddenly getting trashed by some in the national media, but he's plenty capable of doing what he needs to do for this team.
Brian Williams has become nasty on the boards. Cameron Tatum has become a great option off the bench. We'll see which Hopson we get.
I am an insane optimist, and since we play on Thursday you're getting it from me earlier than usual this week. But when I've seen us beat Kansas and Kentucky, I refuse to believe that there's a team in the bracket that we can't beat. Tennessee is a good basketball team. Right now we need to be good enough to beat San Diego State.
We've talked at length about the fact that this team is already a good story. Now it's time to write the ending.