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Tennessee-Memphis II - This Time, It's Personal

The most important player in the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry won't suit up tonight, but Jarnell Stokes' presence will be felt in the FedEx Forum. Whatever passion departed from this matchup when Bruce Pearl left town was instantly replaced when the soon-to-be-Vol spurned the hometown Tigers and signed with Tennessee two weeks ago. You'll have to excuse Memphis, because they're not used to losing the best player in their city to the boys from Knoxville. Maybe this will encourage their fans to encourage Josh Pastner to continue playing this game.

We've already seen it once this year, a 99-97 double overtime barnburner in Maui that remains one of the best games of this young college basketball season. The Tigers won that round to pull the overall series to 14-9 Tennessee, but both teams have been disappointed since then with their inability to get that one big win.

At 7-6, the Vols don't make the Memphis resume at the moment, which means the Tigers will almost certainly have to win the Conference USA Tournament to make the big dance. Like Tennessee, the Tigers have been close with several Top 25 teams, but continue to come up short: an overtime loss in Maui to Georgetown followed by an eleven point loss in the return bout on December 22; a twelve point loss to Michigan in Maui, and an eight point setback at Louisville. And like us, they also fell victim to the mid-major upset bug, though at 14-0 I'm not sure how much of an upset it is when Murray State beats you.

But this game matters not just for Tennessee's momentum heading into SEC play on Saturday, but for this rivalry and for Cuonzo Martin. If the Vols can pay Memphis back after stealing Stokes, they'll continue to tilt the balance of power in this thing toward Knoxville, and Martin would earn his first big win. A win tonight would mean a lot to both teams in a lot of ways.

After the jump, we breakdown the Vols and Tigers and see what we can learn from the first meeting to the second.

Last Time

On November 22 in Maui, a day after the Vols played well but lost to Duke and Memphis lost by a dozen to Michigan, the Tigers looked to run away from Tennessee early. The Tigers led by as many as sixteen in the first half and were still up ten at the break. But then it became the Jeronne Maymon show, as the Vol power forward came alive and dominated in the paint, finishing with 32 points, 20 rebounds (9 offensive), and 16 of 17 at the free throw line. Maymon scored in the final seconds of regulation to get the game to overtime.

But Memphis stayed alive and eventually won the game with strong shooting, going 51.4% from the floor in a double overtime affair. Freshman Adonis Thomas was strong with 19, but Will and Antonio Barton really killed the Vols, finishing with 46 combined including four threes from Antonio.

While Memphis was hitting big shots, the Vols got sloppy: Trae Golden played particularly poorly at 3 of 19, and in the overtimes poor decision making really hurt Tennessee. The Vols had three turnovers in the final three minutes of the first overtime, which helped erase a four point lead. And two turnovers in the final two minutes of the second overtime allowed Memphis to stay in front, and Jeronne Maymon's final shot fell short.

This Time

Here's what's interesting: Tennessee stayed alive against Memphis the first time at the free throw line, going 30 of 37 (81.1%). But other than the Oakland game (20 of 28, 71.4%), the Vols haven't really made it their business to get to the line. Those are the only two games where Tennessee got the line at least 25 times; in the last seven games since the Oakland loss, Tennessee averages just 13 free throw attempts per game.

That's largely a byproduct of Tennessee's offense, which, oversimplified, is "shoot threes and get offensive rebounds."

Tennessee is taking 22.8 threes per game, and just jacked 39 of them against Chattanooga, the second highest total in school history. The good news here is the percentage in general (38.0, 55th nationally and 3rd in the SEC) and Skylar McBee specifically (46.2%, 38th nationally and 3rd in the SEC). McBee was just 1 for 1 from the arc in the first Memphis game, playing only thirteen minutes. But he now averages 19.2 minutes per game, and has seen most of the late game action in the last month at the expense of Jordan McRae, which is a tribute to McBee's defense as well.

The bad news here: Memphis actually shoots the three better than Tennessee. Will Barton and Adonis Thomas have done most of the damage, both at over 41%, but Memphis usually puts a lineup on the floor where almost everyone can knock it down. The Tigers shoot 39.2% as a team averaging 14.9 per contest. In Maui, they hurt the Vols with great shot selection, going 6 of 9 from the arc.

So the most important things Tennessee can do this time:

  • Start fast...or just, you know, start at all. The Vols have had a bad habit of falling behind early. They did it against Memphis in Maui, and they had a couple of near misses in the last month because they weren't awake against UNC-Asheville and ETSU. The Vols will need a good start to help quiet the hostile crowd.
  • Don't forget about Maymon and the free throw line. After Maui we had thoughts of Maymon being an All-SEC type player. But since then, he's only hit double figures three times in ten games. It's good that the Vols have figured out how to win without him in full-on beast mode, but can we get the guy more shots? He's attempted just four shots in the last two games, and had just six attempts in the three before that. We know he can hurt Memphis, and while it'll be interesting to see how out of their way they go to stop him, Tennessee's gameplan certainly needs to include more of him, and more play that gets to the free throw line in general.
  • A better defensive effort. Consider the competition, but after playing poor defense during the losing skid from Duke to Charleston, the Vols certainly stepped it up in their four game win streak: Asheville shot 44.9%, ETSU 40.7%, Citadel 39.3%, and UTC 34.5%. We spend most of our time talking about threes and the consistency of Trae Golden, but the biggest change in Tennessee has been on the defensive end, and that has to make Cuonzo Martin happy. If Memphis shoots over 50% again, the Vols will have to be hot from the arc (or get another monster game from Maymon) to stay alive. Tennessee's chances of winning are much better if they continue to bring a strong defensive effort and make Memphis work harder for what they get. With the Tigers' athleticism and talent, it'll be a challenge for all five Vol defenders on the floor. But it's a leap this team needs to be able to make to win this game, a one that could show exactly the sort of progress they need to make to compete in the SEC.
8:00 PM ET - Fox Sports South