The blueprint for beating Tennessee read something like this: stop Wayne Chism, let UT shoot poorly from beyond the arc, and take advantage of the ways we can be turnover prone.
Today in Starkville, with Mississippi State playing at home on Senior Night and with their NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, the Bulldogs ran that blueprint very well. Chism had one point, the Vols shot 3 of 16 from beyond the arc, and we turned the ball over 15 times.
But instead of that blueprint producing victory for the Bulldogs, Tennessee took that blueprint and set it on fire. Without any significant contributions from Wayne Chism, the Vols absolutely owned the paint. Tennessee outrebounded Mississippi State 41-30, and made it their business to make a new blueprint: get to the hole.
I didn't see the first four minutes, as ESPN opted to stay with the end of the Baylor-Texas blowout. But they did put that handy little scoreboard in the upper right hand corner once the Vols and Bulldogs tipped off. And so with the Vol Network streaming audio a few seconds behind, we got to watch the scoreboard tick off points for the Vols: 3-0, then 5-0, then 7, then 9. And then you got to hear exactly how it happened a few seconds later - and after J.P. Prince opened the scoring with a three pointer, Tennessee went inside almost exclusively. The Vols kept scoring. The zero next to Mississippi State's name didn't go away.
Prince and Scotty Hopson set the tone early, using the old faithful of creating turnovers to setup easy baskets on the other end. And in the blink of an eye and with several more State turnovers, that 9-0 lead stunningly became 17-0...and Mississippi State never fully recovered.
After the first six minutes and that 17-0 lead, the Vols still found most of their offense in the same way: play good defense, force some turnovers, box out and rebound, and then attack the basket. Prince was the leader in that effort, finishing with 16 points to go with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals...and to no one's surprise, 4 turnovers, because J.P. is an equal opportunist in the box score.
But right behind him was Scotty Hopson, who - jinx alert - played well for the fourth straight game. Playing in Starkville for the first time, against the team he decommitted from, Hopson had 14 points (and zero turnovers). And when the Vols did need threes, Hopson nailed two in the second half back-to-back, one of several Vol efforts that turned back potential State runs: Mississippi State cut Tennessee's lead to 11 points five different times, including one spurt that got it to single digits at 53-44...but everytime, Tennessee responded and responded immediately with a run of their own. We saw two things today we hadn't seen from Tennessee all year: a fast start against a good team, and an ability to turn back runs and hold a good team at bay once we had them down.
Along with Prince and Hopson penetrating inside, Brian Williams was incredibly key: the big fella played his best game of the season, with 10 points and 13 man-sized rebounds. Williams kept Varnado at bay, and made sure Tennessee didn't suffer without any productivity from Chism. Kenny Hall added 6 points and 4 boards in the first half, though he was quiet in the second. The Vols shot 50.0% from the floor, and played defense well enough to hold State to just 33.9%, as the early lead forced the Bulldogs' hand from three, where they finished just 9 of 32 (28.1%).
In the end, Tennessee became a team that attacked the basket and manned up on the boards, and did so on the road against a team playing for their tournament lives. The Vols started fast and never let State think the outcome would be any different after those first six minutes: Tennessee led 17-0 and won by 16. The win also makes the top four teams in the SEC East a perfect 24-0 against the SEC West this season.
And the Vols continue to shorten the rotation and get the best players the most minutes: Skylar McBee, who played only three minutes against Arkansas, did not play today. Renaldo Woolridge played only because of Chism's foul trouble. Melvin Goins continues to be solid as the backup point guard, Cameron Tatum (10 points in 19 minutes, another at-the-basket scoring effort) ensures there's no drop-off when he comes in, Hall and BWill were huge...and Steven Pearl continues to play hard, tough defense and give us reason to keep him on the floor. Tennessee has never been closer to its best basketball than they were today.
The Vols were so good today, Jimmy Dykes said they were a team that could make the Final Four, and then Bob Knight did him one better on this evening's Gameday by saying they might be the most dangerous team in the field. And those are opinions and nothing more. But when Tennessee plays this well...well, we'll find out.
Tonight was the exclamation point on a great regular season: the Vols end at 23-7, 11-5 in the SEC. In comparison, at the end of the regular season during the Pearl Era:
- 2006: 21-6, 12-4
- 2007: 22-9, 10-6
- 2008: 28-3, 14-2
- 2009: 19-11, 10-6
This team has become just as good, though in different ways, than any of Pearl's other teams aside from the '08 group that owns the school record for victories. It's an incredible accomplishment, especially considering what's happened this season.
But we'll have more time to reflect on that when it's over. For now, there are somewhere between 2-10 games left in the season. Tennessee did more to position themselves on the 4 seed line today. A good showing in Nashville next week could help that even further. But the Vols had their best performance of the season on its 30th night. In a year full of surprises, the way Tennessee played today is perhaps the biggest one. And if this team keeps moving forward, they'll have a chance to put an even bigger exclamation point on the year in the next few weeks.
Onward, to Nashville.