Tennessee Basketball hasn't been in the business of moral victories lately, and it sounds strange to say, but the way they have played in two losses in Maui suggests that's not going to change anytime soon.
Less than 24 hours after hanging with Duke for most of the game, the Vols fought back from a 16 point first half hole against Memphis to force overtime, then a second, before falling on the final possession 99-97. It'll take more basketball to prove this on both sides - Memphis is still quite young, though experienced, themselves - but this certainly looked and felt like two good teams going at each other for forty minutes and then some.
There are a number of storylines to take from this frustrating-yet-encouraging game:
- Jeronne Maymon. The question as recently as 48 hours ago was how this Tennessee team would score any points inside. The answer today was Maymon, and he was a revelation. 32 points and 20 rebounds, and a jaw dropping 16 of 17 at the free throw line from the guy who was 5 of 20 at the line last season. When the game was on the line at the end of regulation, the Vols went to Maymon (off a screen, which he is also incredibly great at setting) and he slashed to the basket in impressive fashion for the tying score. Where he wasn't able to finish at the rim against Duke's bigger bodies, he absolutely dominated today. I hope someone somewhere is digging to see if a Tennessee player has ever had a 30-20. If he can be at all consistent with that production, Tennessee can find strength and not weakness in the paint.
- Free-throw shooting. And not just Maymon: the Vols shot an astounding 30 of 37 at the stripe, 81.1%. Trae Golden - more on him in a second - was 7 of 8. Last year the Vols shot 68.4% at the line. Their best ever season under Bruce Pearl was 70.1% in 2006 with the deadly duo of C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton. Through four games this season, the Vols are shooting 75.7% at the line, and players like Maymon and Kenny Hall who were complete liabilities there in the past are now making more than they miss. The most noticeable positive changes from Pearl to Cuonzo have been at the line and at the end of games, where Tennessee got three good looks for Maymon today.
- Trae Golden. Largely believed to be our best player after the first three games, Golden found Memphis too quick to get through many times today, which led to some really bad decisions. It's not so much that Golden was 3 of 19 from the floor, it's how he got there: 1 of 7 from the arc, most of them bad or forced looks. Especially in the overtimes - where fatigue could certainly be a factor - Golden made poor decisions on bad or rushed shots that turned into Memphis points. If the Vols are smarter in extra time, Tennessee wins this game. Golden is still our point guard and still our leader, and a loss like this in November can become a tremendous learning tool.
- Credit Memphis for making some big shots. The Tigers did their thing when Tennessee was seduced into playing their up-tempo game in the first half, going on a 16-0 run that looked to put the game away. But even as the Vols came back, Memphis made huge shots throughout the second half to keep Tennessee at a safe distance, and made all the shots they had to have in overtime. Freshman Adonis Thomas is good right away, shooting 70% from the floor and putting in 19 points. But it was Will & Antonio Barton who really crushed Tennessee: 46 points, 16 rebounds, and five threes combined. They led the way in a game where most of the roster was plagued with foul trouble. Congrats to Memphis on the win - we'll see them again January 4 at FedEx.
- Before then, Tennessee almost certainly has a date with Maui host Chaminade at 2:30 PM ET tomorrow. Then the Vols will play at Oakland Monday night - this team beat the Vols last year but lost Keith Benson, and has already lost to Alabama by 17 and Arkansas by 23. Chaminade will likely be overmatched, but Oakland will still take some doing - these are two games Cuonzo Martin has to have to keep this thing going. That would get us to Saturday, December 3 against #16 Pittsburgh in Knoxville in the SEC-Big East Invitational. If you are at all able, you should come to this game - this team has played their butts off for two days in Maui and come awfully close to a pair of huge upsets. But what's more, they've showed that Tennessee Basketball can keep moving forward without Bruce Pearl, that what Cuonzo Martin wants to do can work, and getting that win at home over Pitt would be a huge next step forward. We're awfully proud of this team in defeat...if the Vols take care of business the next two games, we need to come out and support them in their next big chance to make us proud in victory.