Perhaps we've been too busy with our own troubles to fully notice, but guess who else likes to play close games against inferior competition?
Yeah, our old friends at Tiger High have seen their share of troubles this year too, both the on-and-off-court varieties just like us. In Year Two for Josh Pastner (who, by the way, might be Dane Bradshaw's evil twin...have we discussed this?), Memphis has dismissed star freshman Jelan Kendrick for being kind of a jerk, and seen backup forward Angel Garcia leave for professional ball in Spain.
On the court, the Tigers are 11-2 and ranked #21, but both the wins and losses have been ugly. There's no shame in losing to Kansas and Georgetown, but when you do so by a combined 30 points, you're not doing yourself any favors either. Good wins on the resume? Well, the Tigers beat Miami by 4...they did beat an SEC school, but that was LSU. There may be no such thing as a bad win, but it's taken Memphis overtime to beat Arkansas State and Austin Peay. The Tigers also boast a five point win over the 5-9 Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders, and were pushed to the wire by THE Tennessee State University on Sunday in a 91-86 win.
That score is indicative of what Memphis has done most of the year: they'll score, 18th in the nation at 80.8 points per game (previous Vol opponents on that list include Belmont at #10, 83.2 ppg, and Oakland at 15, 81.6 ppg). But Memphis, like us recently, is not a fan of defense: 236th out of 345 teams, and that's in large part because they held the Centenary Gentlemen to 40 in the opener. Take that away, and Memphis has given up 72.8 points per game (which would put them in 273rd on that list) against a schedule that's above average at best.
The Vols are giving up 68.2 per game, but the halfcourt defense that carried us against Villanova and Pittsburgh has vanished against good offensive teams in the last three weeks, with Oakland dropping 89 and Charleston following up with 91, both in Thompson-Boling. The script suggests an exciting game: two teams with tons of talent and athleticism, little defense, and a general unpredictability. And with the issues both teams are facing heading into conference play, it's a game both teams need to win very badly.
So how can the Vols make life a little less crazy and a little more predictable for themselves against Memphis?
The only returning starter from last year's game on either side is Scotty Hopson. If you remember New Year's Eve 2009, Tennessee won a physical, defensive affair 66-59 by holding the Tigers to 31.4% shooting, and absolutely dominating Memphis on the boards to the tune of +16. This allowed Tennessee to overcome a 2 of 13 performance from the arc, as well as 16 turnovers.
The significant carryover for Memphis from that game is 6'9" Wesley Witherspoon, who had 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks before fouling out against the Vols. Like Pastner and Bradshaw, it's also quite possible that Witherspoon and Scotty Hopson are related. When he's up, Memphis is up: he's scored 20+ points three times this year, including a pair of incredibly impressive performances against Northwestern State (24 pts 12 rebs) and Lipscomb (28 pts 14 rebs). But when he's down, Memphis struggles: he was out with an injury in the aforementioned Austin Peay and TAMUCC games, scored only 11 combined points against Kansas and Georgetown, and had just 3 against Tennessee State in his last game.
The rest of the Tigers' points will come from new faces. The Barton Bros. - 6'6" Will and 6'2" Antonio - lead the Tigers in scoring and three point shooting, respectively. Will Barton combines with Witherspoon to give the Tigers two bigger players who can really do a number of things well, and both fill up the stat sheet. Memphis also relies heavily on local kids, as usual: Joe Jackson from White Station, Tarik Black from Ridgeway, and Chris Crawford from Sheffield are all instant contributors. Other than Kentucky, Memphis had the best recruiting class in the nation (though both took a hit without Enes Kanter and Jelan Kendrick): five of their top seven scorers are freshmen.
All that youth is surely part of the reason the Tigers have been inconsistent and struggled against good teams. In that sense, Memphis is easier to figure out than Tennessee.
The rivalry between us has been diminished since Elvis left the building for the bluegrass, but make no mistake: this is an incredibly important game for both teams. For Memphis, their only other non-conference game left on the schedule is against a Gonzaga team that's already lost five games. If they want a marquee win, Knoxville is their best opportunity.
For the Vols, there are a number of words that could be written about how important it is for Bruce Pearl to give Tony Jones a team that's moving in the right direction off of a big win, instead of a team that's lost five of its last seven, four of them at home.
But it's also becoming true that Tennessee is running out of time. The Vols are 9-4, with Memphis, UConn, and sixteen SEC games left on the schedule. Beating Memphis would give Tennessee its third win over a ranked foe before conference play begins, and would ease some of the pain from the four losses. But losing to Memphis would putt Pitt and Villanova further in the rear view mirror, and those wins will become even harder for the selection committee to remember with each additional loss. If the Vols beat Memphis, you can make a case that the team that beat Pitt and Nova is still lurking. But another loss will put the Vols in the bubble group, and it'll take a long time and a lot of wins to distance ourselves from that conversation.
We need this one. Here's what Tennessee can do to get it done:
- Bigtime players in bigtime games. It's no secret that Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris lead the way for the Vols. Hopson disappeared at times in big games last year (most notably Ohio State), but also hit a game-winning shot against Florida and a game-clinching shot against Kentucky. This year, Scotty has been the NIT MVP and played the game of his life against Pittsburgh. He doesn't have to have a Pitt performance again, but something in the neighborhood of the 16.4 points he averages would be nice. As for Tobias, who gets his 15 per game with a steady hand, he needs to be the best freshman on the floor. The recruiting rankings say he is...good night for those guys to be right. Hopson and Harris will surely lead the Vols in scoring, but if they can do it without taking 40 shots between them, there's a better chance for the entire offense to get going.
- Don't settle for threes, but don't pass up good looks. If three point shooting is a big part of what's been hurting the Vols since Pitt, the only way you get over it is to keep shooting. All the primary shooters are somewhere between 30-33% from the arc - even Cameron Tatum has come back to the pack. The solution isn't to start jacking 30 threes per game and hope for the best...but Tennessee still has to take open looks and not allow it to become any more of a mental issue than it already is. Witherspoon is a hoss, but the Vols should still be able to outrebound Memphis like they did last year, and the offensive glass will be especially important if the Vols struggle from the field once again.
- Win turnovers, win transition. Bruce Pearl mentioned this week that the Vols are better in transition offense than in the halfcourt, to which anyone who's watched us the last three weeks will quickly agree. The answer isn't to go back to the press, because I'm not sure the Vols have the personnel for that. But a stronger commitment to the halfcourt defense that shut down Pittsburgh and Villanova will create more opportunities on offense. When we get in the halfcourt, teams are sagging and forcing us to shoot threes. Scotty Hopson has developed a terrible habit of leaving the ball in traffic trying to get to the hole. Both teams will want to run, and this could turn into a shootout. I'll take a 90-89 win happily, but what will really impress me is if the Vols can show up on defense again, and stop being so kind when we have the ball.
- The rotation will be a work in progress all year. And we forget sometimes that it won't be anything new. Ask Josh Bone what he thinks about playing in the NCAA Tournament after not playing at all for two months. Ask J.P. Prince what he thought about playing point guard for the first time in the big dance. We've got 14 guys who can go, and Pearl has consistently said two things: he only wants to play 10, and he doesn't want guys to play two positions. That means one of Brian Williams, John Fields, and Kenny Hall is going to get left out. It also means taking risks: Pearl could put his son back at the 4 at the expense of Jeronne Maymon, in an effort to get back to the basketball that made the Vols 7-0. Steven is an easy target, both last year and this season at the 3...but don't forget that he played really well and, more importantly, made everyone else better at the 4 this season. We'll see what happens...but Wednesday won't be the final word on UT's 2011 rotation. It just needs to be the right word for this game.
We've got a story on our hands with Tony Jones and SEC play no matter what happens in this game. But Bruce Pearl needs to stop this slide and get us moving in the right direction while he's still on the bench to do so. With the students still out, there are still lower level seats available - this team needs a good crowd on Wednesday night. It's been a rough couple of weeks for the University of Tennessee...we need this one to go the right way.