WARNING: This team is better than you think they are.
See, you're probably thinking of the UNC-Asheville with that really tall guy (7'7" Kenny George, last seen in 2007-08). Or the UNC-Asheville that allowed Tyler Smith to record the first triple-double in the history of the program in December 2008. Or the UNC-Asheville that last appeared in Thompson-Boling Arena in November 2009...and took a 124-49 beating at the hands of UT's Elite Eight squad. That game set records for field goals allowed in the first half (two), assists (34), and of course, points. It tied the school record for threes made (16) and the 75 point margin of victory is second best in UT history. Six players in double figures, 29 turnovers forced...it was the perfect game. (Box score here, for fun)
But this UNC-Asheville? This UNC-Asheville was the preseason favorite in the Big South. They were competitive with NC State (84-75) and #4 UConn (73-63). The Charleston team that beat us beat them by a deuce in Nassau. And since then, they've ripped off four in a row, including a 22 point beatdown of Utah (who's 3-8, but still). They're seventh nationally in scoring because they put a combined 235 points on lesser in-state friends Mars Hill and Montreat. And they still have perennial Rocky Top League standout J.P. Primm, who's averaging 13.0 points and 4.8 assists for the Bulldogs.
Factor in all of that with Trae Golden's fractured nose and a healthy dose of "Tennessee isn't good enough to take anyone for granted", and we've got a ballgame.
And this will make you feel even better:
Here's the good news/bad news: UNC-Asheville essentially starts four guards and a forward. Primm is 6'1", leading scorer Matt Dickey is 6'1", and Chris Stephenson (6'3") and Jeremy Atkinson (6'4") are bigger, but still nothing to write home about. Quinard Jackson is 6'5" 240, rounding out the starting five. They've got some size that'll come in off the bench, but most of the minutes go to small ball.
That's good, because here's the most obvious case yet to get the ball to Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall early and late. There is no reason the Vols' post players can't have a field day against this bunch. And there is absolutely no reason for the Vols to completely ignore them on the offensive end in the last fourteen minutes of the game the way they've done against Austin Peay and Charleston. Put the offense on their shoulders and go to work.
The bad news is, Tennessee has struggled to play solid defense against good opposing guards. Duke got 35 combined from Austin Rivers and Seth Curry. Memphis got 46 from the Bartons. Oakland's Reggie Hamilton dropped 35 by himself. Ashton Gibbs and Nasir Robinson combined for 32 for Pitt. Austin Peay got 39 from guard combo Josh Terry and TyShawn Edmondson. Only Duke's post players and Charleston's Antwaine Wiggins have really hurt Tennessee from a non-guard role.
That means Trae Golden, Cameron Tatum, Jordan McRae, and Skylar McBee m-u-s-t do a better job defending, not just tonight, but as this thing goes along. Josh Richardson has been solid defensively even though he's less dynamic on the offensive end, but especially against this smaller lineup he could see more minutes. And it'll be interesting to see if Wes Washpun returns to action, or if the Vols use Tatum and McBee at point guard when Golden needs a blow...who again, will be playing with a fractured nose. Lots of moving parts in this one, but regardless, the Vols are locking down in the post defensively but failing to take advantage of their strength inside on the offensive end, and the guard play hasn't been good enough on either end to make up the difference.
I'll again be curious to watch the threes. There's so much of me that wants to rabblerabblerabble about taking too many, but the Vols are still shooting 38.9% from the arc, 43rd nationally and still just a hair behind Florida for best in the SEC. It's only when we settle for them at the expense of our interior game down the stretch that it truly frustrates.
It's been a long week since the Charleston loss, and even longer since we felt good about this basketball team. Beating UNC-Asheville won't get us all the way back there, but this team is better than most are giving them credit for being, and beating Tennessee in Knoxville would still be a very big deal to them, so we'll get their best effort. A number of players, including four of their five starters, were in that 75 point beatdown game. You don't forget something like that.
After the off-and-on pattern that always comes with early season basketball, the Vols now get into a more regular rhythm: five games in the next sixteen days, before the twice-a-week grind of SEC play begins on January 7. There's still time to build momentum and all of that, but as has been the case all year, Tennessee will need to play good basketball tonight to get a win. We've done enough losing. It's time to start winning.
The Vols and Lady Vols tipoff simultaneously tonight; Tennessee is on SportSouth (and ESPN3) at 7:00 PM ET, while the #6 Lady Vols are at #4 Stanford on Comcast Sports Net, if you can find it. We'll have a combined live thread for all the action this evening.