Here's the difference between Tennessee and Georgia:
Both teams had three players in double figures. The Vols shot 42.9%, the Dawgs 42.6%. Both teams hit six threes and missed only two free throws. Tennessee had ten assists and nine turnovers, Georgia had eleven of each. The Vols blocked seven shots, Georgia six. And Tennessee won thanks to Brian Williams, 59-57.
Eleven ties, nine lead changes, and other than a three minute stretch in the first half where Georgia led by as many as seven, no team led by more than four points the entire way. In the second half, only one possession was played as anything more than a one possession game - a McB43 put the Vols up four with eight minutes to play, but Travis Leslie followed with an and-one to bring it right back to one.
That's how close we were: a dead even ballgame decided in the final tenths of a second with a put-back and a questionable no-call. And this time around, the margin for error for both teams is equally razor thin.
For the Vols it's not necessarily a must-win, but it can prevent other, more difficult games from acquiring that label. At 16-10, 6-5 in the league, and 24th in the RPI against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, it seems reasonable that if the Vols simply win the games they're supposed to win the rest of the way, Tennessee will get in. Those wins certainly should include Mississippi State and South Carolina, which would help give the Vols enough cushion to absorb potential losses at Vanderbilt and against Kentucky again (the latter of which I would argue should also be a game we expect Tennessee to win, but that's for another day...).
But of the ones we're "supposed to win" on paper, this will be the most difficult. It's a home game against yet another RPI Top 50 foe, with the Dawgs hanging on at #45 at the moment. The Vols are currently 6-4 against the Top 50; this is the best chance to get another quality win before the SEC Tournament. Lose, and you'll have to find it in Nashville or against Kentucky - we'll need it more and have to get it against tougher competition. Win, and we get a little breathing room.
For Georgia, breathing room is non-existent - T Kyle King believes they've passed the point of no return (good stuff in the comments on this one too), and their last six games offer evidence to support that claim. Since Erving Walker did this and the Gators beat them in Athens in double overtime, Georgia has done the following:
- Lost at Kentucky 66-60
- Won at Arkansas by one point (which is more than we can say)
- Blew a four point lead with thirteen seconds to go in regulation, needing overtime to beat lowly Auburn in Athens
- Lost at home to Xavier 65-57
- Led at South Carolina 28-9 (no typo) at halftime, by as many as 23 in the second half, and was still up 49-29 with 9:10 to play. Carolina had the ball with a chance to tie with thirteen seconds left. The Gamecocks missed a three and Georgia won by four.
- Wednesday night at home against Vandy, Georgia led 40-26 with thirteen minutes to play. A Travis Leslie three put them up 53-40 with 9:47 to play. The Dawgs didn't make another shot. Vandy closed on a 24-3 run to win 64-56.
It's not just losing that takes its toll, it's how you do it. As is the case in Knoxville, the athletic department in Athens has created a culture of winning in many sports, but basketball isn't one of them - other than the 2008 team that was 13-16 heading into the Tornado Tournament, Georgia hasn't made the dance since 2002. I think Mark Fox is a solid coach, but right now nobody associated with the program knows what it's like to go dancing on their own merit instead of a last minute backdoor invitation. When you combine that with the way the last six games have put a serious dent in the real hope this team had after beating Kentucky in Athens on January 8, and especially the way the Dawgs have blown leads...there's a serious "uh oh, here we go again" quality about this team that Tennessee could expose, early or late.
However, outside Athens hope still flickers. SB Nation bracketologist Chris Dobbertean (who will join us on the podcast Wednesday night to discuss the Vols and the bracket) still has Georgia in for now, albeit in the fancy new "First Four" set of games as one of the final at-large selections. The consensus among most bracketologists right now is that Georgia is still on the right side of the bubble...but unlike Tennessee, they'll probably have to win more than just the games they're supposed to in order to stay there.
After tomorrow in Knoxville, Georgia heads to Gainesville Wednesday night. Home dates with South Carolina and LSU won't be the difference between in and out unless they lose, and then their regular season closes in Tuscaloosa against an Alabama team that may or may not be considered a quality opponent in the eyes of the selection committee. Point being: if Georgia's going to get it done, it has to be now.
That puts the Dawgs in a corner, and could make them very dangerous. And as we've seen, this was as even as it gets the first time around. As keys to victory for Tennessee go, that's why it's more important than ever before to:
Georgia has six road wins on its resume, but the SEC ones came in Oxford, Fayetteville, and Columbia. They've yet to win a road game against a team that will make the NCAA Tournament. Whatever percentage of Georgia's recent struggles can be attributed to mental toughness, the Vols can multiply it by coming out of the gate in a hurry. If we don't, we could still be able to take advantage of their inability to protect a lead in the second half. As inconsistent as we've been at times this year, Tennessee still knows a lot more about winning games like this one than Georgia does. It needs to show, early and late.
Strengths and Weaknesses: Offensive Rebounds and Free Throws
A common theme for us the last few weeks was also present in our first meeting with the Dawgs. They were the only two real differences in the stat sheet on January 18: Tennessee could not get to the free throw line, going only 5 of 7 for the game. Georgia only got there 13 times, hitting 11 - your degree of appreciation for Ted Valentine's crew letting them play that night depends on which side of the over-the-back no-call you fall on.
Either way, Tennessee got what they missed at the free throw line on the offensive glass: twelve second chances to Georgia's six, making all the difference in UT's +6 rebounding margin for the game and, of course, on the final play. The beauty of it: nine different Vols grabbed an offensive rebound in that game. I see no reason not to crash the glass from everywhere again.
We saw some of Bruce Pearl's questions about why the Vols were shooting far fewer free throws than their opponents get answered against South Carolina: Tennessee was 21 of 35 from the stripe, while the Gamecocks were just 9 of 12. During our 7-0 start to the season, the Vols were among the nation's leaders in free throw rate. But now Tennessee is 134th nationally in that category, getting just 39.5% of our points at the line. At Kentucky and Florida last week, Tennessee went a combined 12 of 22 at the free throw line. The Cats and Gators went 38 of 49.
Was the South Carolina game a one-time fix, or a sign of better days returning? The Vols will need to make an impact inside against Georgia again, not just on the glass but at the stripe. With UGA's recent history of going ice cold at the end of games, Tennessee doesn't need to help them by sending them to the line repeatedly. Win the paint, but win it clean.
Trey and Tobias
One of the major factors in UT's victory last time was their ability to slow down Trey Thompkins. The 6'10" junior averages 16.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, but the Vols held him to 4 of 13 shooting in Athens, as he finished with just 13 points and 4 rebounds. On the other hand, Tobias Harris was effective everywhere with a 15-5-4 along with three steals and an incredible five blocked shots. It was his defense just as much as his offense that gave the Vols an advantage in the post, and he'll need to come to play again.
Tobias' production has been down the last three games, averaging 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds, well below his season averages of 14.2 and 7.4. A lot of that is fewer shots, whether by design or mistake: Tobias averaged 12 shots per game in our first twenty-six contests, but has taken just 8.3 shots per game against Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina. Is that Pearl's influence? You have to ask given the timing, though I think he understands the value of getting the ball in the hands of your best players. Tennessee is going to need a good game from Harris to counter Georgia's bigs...it's nothing we haven't already seen, and it would be nice for Tobias to throw a really good game out there to silence any thoughts that he's hit the freshman wall.
Sssshhhhhhh...read this last part real quiet like...
Scotty Hopson just scored 20+ points in consecutive SEC games for the first time in his career.
(And the only other time he's ever done it came against UNC-Asheville and East Carolina last year.)
I know suggesting he's doing anything good will make all of us prone to believe he's due for a down game next...but Hopson was solid against Georgia the first time, 15 points and 5 rebounds.
I also know it was only South Carolina, but there was some anger in those dunks that I really, really liked. At his worst, Scotty feels sorry for himself and gets in his own head too much. At his best, Scotty realizes he's the best player on the floor, and then takes it out on the other team with authority. This will always be why the first point up there about starting fast has to include Hopson. When he gets going early, we all get going the rest of the way. In Athens the first time, the Vols won without a single point from Cameron Tatum because Hopson still carried the load from the wing.
Travis Leslie will give him a run for his money on dunks (DeMarcus Cousins, get some), but Hopson is by far the better player. When he puts that authoritative to-the-basket dimension with the rest of his game, Tennessee is very tough to beat. It'll be a taller task against Georgia than it was against Carolina...could he really play three really good games in a row?
Georgia needs it more, but the Vols need to make sure it doesn't look that way on Saturday. The Vols are more experienced and mentally tougher; no need to see anything different there either, especially in Knoxville where those advantages will increase. As we already saw with Florida, a game that even in round one could certainly lend itself to another to-the-wire battle in round two. But even if the Vols can't put Georgia away early or make them fold late, Tennessee needs to play its best basketball and get the job done by any means necessary. It's the OUTLIVE game...that'll do on the floor just as well as it will in the stands.
1:00 PM Saturday - CBS