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Tennessee vs Arkansas Preview

Here's where we make the distinction between "biggest game of the year" - a title reserved for the likes of Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, or Memphis - and "most important game of the year", a title which fits the next three games quite nicely.

Florida won in Tuscaloosa last night, securing their grip on second place in the league and knocking Alabama back to 5-6. But then those lovable Bulldogs of Mississippi State lost their second straight overtime game, falling in Baton Rouge by a deuce. That means the winner of tonight's game between Tennessee and Arkansas will move into a tie for fourth place in the SEC at 6-5. The notion that the Vols could earn a first round bye in the SEC Tournament isn't misplaced optimism - Tennessee will be right there if they win tonight.

Witness the beauty of UT's schedule: there was a four-way tie for fifth place in the league at 5-5 before Alabama lost last night. The Vols' next three opponents are the other three teams in that tie. At this point, if would be disappointing if Tennessee doesn't go at least 2-1 against Arkansas, Alabama, and Ole Miss, especially with two of the three in Knoxville. And if you want to indulge the NCAA fantasy, the Vols need to go 3-0. Do that, and not only would Tennessee be 8-5 in the SEC (with a trip to 1-9 South Carolina to follow) and have the inside track to a first round bye in New Orleans, but their RPI would increase drastically. It currently sits at 112, but the next three opponents are at 62, 38, and 52. Opportunity is now here.

But to continue the fantasy and the great feeling that's been around this program since the win at Florida, the Vols have to win those games. All of that starts tonight against Arkansas.

First, some history. Tennessee and Arkansas have been playing really good basketball games recently:

  • 2011 SEC Tournament: In Bruce Pearl's final victory, the Vols allowed a 16-0 Arkansas run that tied the game with 2:08 to play. But the Hogs wouldn't score again, and Brian Williams and Melvin Goins helped the Vols secure a 74-68 victory.
  • 2011 Fayetteville: In Tony Jones' first game, the Vols tried to rally from a 13 point deficit, and did have the ball with a chance to tie on the final possession, but fell 68-65 when a Tobias Harris three went begging.
  • 2010 Knoxville: Following the huge upset over #2 Kentucky, the Vols might've been feeling a little too good about themselves. Arkansas cut Tennessee's lead to three with thirteen minutes to play. Then Bruce Pearl got a technical foul, and Tennessee responded with a 10-0 run that would lead to an 80-73 victory. We didn't know it at the time, but this team was two weeks away from becoming our greatest of all time.
  • 2009 Fayetteville: On Lane Kiffin's National Signing Day, Tennessee and Arkansas traded baskets on six consecutive possessions in the final two minutes. A pullup-J by Bobby Maze put the Vols in front with five seconds left, and Arkansas finally missed to secure a 74-72 Tennessee victory.
  • 2008 SEC Tournament: The Tornado Tournament found the Vols and Hogs battling in Georgia Tech's arena in the semifinals, and if you like scoring you loved this game: 17 lead changes, Arkansas shooting 44% and the Vols 45% from the arc, 25 from Lofton, 24 from Tyler Smith, 18 from Juanny...and the Vols still lost on Steven Hill's only basket of the game, a turnaround in the final seconds for a 92-91 Arkansas win that may have cost the Vols a number one seed.
But the most important piece of history for this game is from this season: Arkansas is 17-0 in Fayetteville, 0-8 everywhere else.

And most of these losses aren't really even close:
  • November 18: Houston 87 Arkansas 78 (Little Rock)
  • December 3: UConn 75 Arkansas 62
  • December 10: Oklahoma 78 Arkansas 63
  • January 11: Ole Miss 71 Arkansas 63
  • January 17: Kentucky 86 Arkansas 63
  • January 28: Alabama 72 Arkansas 66
  • February 4: LSU 71 Arkansas 65
  • February 8: Georgia 81 Arkansas 59
That last one is especially noteworthy: Georgia averages 61.9 points per game, 293rd nationally and dead last in the SEC. But they shot 52.6% from the floor, 9 of 20 from three, and I know some people think rebounding margin is a throwaway stat, but not when it's 42-20. Again: Georgia.

At home, Arkansas has beaten Mississippi State by ten, had Michigan down twenty in the first half before holding them off 66-64, and beat Vanderbilt just two weeks ago 82-74. But on the road, they're barely competitive against anyone. Arkansas shoots 43.6% from the floor, but just 38.3% on the road.

A huge factor to watch tonight in the first SEC battle between Cuonzo Martin and Mike Anderson: what's the pace of play? Arkansas leads the SEC and is 27th nationally in possessions per game. The Vols play a much slower pace, seventh in the SEC and 215th nationally. Clearly, Arkansas didn't handle slowdown ball well against Georgia. Will Tennessee be disciplined enough to not be seduced into playing an up-tempo game?

Arkansas plays fast, but they only turn it over on 18.4% of their possessions. However, they're 310th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage allowed, probably because they've got guys ready to get out and run instead of crashing the glass. This could be a huge, huge advantage for Tennessee tonight.

Freshman guard B.J. Young leads the way at 14.4 points and 40.4% from three per game. But perhaps the biggest threat is sophomore Mardracus Wade from Memphis, the SEC's leading three point shooter at 49.0%. The guy was 5 for 5 against Georgia, and a lot of good that did, but better guard him.

There's also a size issue here: Arkansas' top five scorers are all 6'5" and under. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, especially if he's healthy, could have a field day inside. It'll be interesting to see if Cuonzo decides to go small and play the Golden-McBee-McRae-Tatum-post lineup against this crew - that's a group that encourages a faster tempo though, so use with caution.

If Tennessee's identity is their defense again, the Vols should be able to frustrate this very young Arkansas team the way they've done Florida and UConn. The Pigs certainly have a complex on the road, and Tennessee has been playing very well at home: 5-1 since conference play began, the only loss a strong effort against Kentucky, four of the five wins coming by double figures, and the other the 60-57 win over UConn. Tennessee knows what they're doing now, and knows how to do it well enough, especially at home, to win a game like this if they play their game and not Arkansas'. I really think that's the biggest thing tonight: keep it slow, play your game, don't get tempted to get out and run. Keep making it about defense, and a team that hasn't won on the road all year shouldn't have enough to get their first one in our house. This team was mature enough to win in Gainesville - we should be mature enough to beat Arkansas in Knoxville.

Tickets are still available - if you're in the area, get out there and support this team's effort. We'll be here live tonight for the open thread, 8:00 PM ET - SEC Network/ESPN3.

Beat Arkansas.