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SEC Tournament: Tennessee vs Ole Miss Preview

When last we met, this happened.
When last we met, this happened.

After six days off, the time is now for Tennessee Basketball.

The Vols continue to find themselves right on the edge of the bubble conversation. Losses by Seton Hall, Washington, and Northwestern have created even more space. And last night Tennessee got the outcome their RPI wanted as Ole Miss beat Auburn. So far this week everything has lined up to allow the Vols to control their own fate. We don't know if it will take one win or two, but we know for sure that losing tonight is not an option for Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes. And so the biggest game of an already successful Year One for Cuonzo Martin tips off tonight at 7:30 PM ET in New Orleans.

The Vols and Rebels met just two and a half weeks ago in Knoxville. Tennessee was coming off the disappointing loss at Alabama, and we knew a letdown was possible. That's certainly what it looked like as Ole Miss raced to a 15-2 lead in the first six minutes. But from there, Tennessee showed the maturity of a much more experienced team, coming off the deck to outscore the Rebels 71-45 the rest of the way. Tennessee took the lead just seven minutes after the initial Ole Miss run, was down one at halftime, then opened the second half with a now-familiar script: a defensive run, holding the Rebels to two points from 17:29 to 10:57. The Vols put up eight points during that span, then capped it with a three from Dwight Miller, the surprise story of the game. Ole Miss got no closer than eight from that point on.

The weird start and the strong finish plus the play of Miller make it hard to read too much into that first meeting. And here's what else we know: the Vols are on a roll, but so is Ole Miss, who hasn't lost since that night in Knoxville.

Not hard to figure out where we start on this one:

Jeronne Maymon & Jarnell Stokes vs Terrance Henry & Murphy Holloway

In Knoxville, the point comparison was almost equal: 18 from Maymon and 8 from Stokes, 15 from Henry and 13 from Holloway. But Tennessee crushed Ole Miss on the boards to the tune of 40-25; the Vols grabbed an offensive rebound on 41.9% of their misses, while Ole Miss got it back just 19.3% of the time. In a game where both teams shot exactly 25 of 56 (44.6%) from the floor, the offensive rebounding advantage was huge because it helped put Tennessee on the free throw line: Tennessee went 18 of 26 from the stripe, while Ole Miss was just 7 of 12, and that was the difference.

When it comes to offensive rebounding, that again was Maymon's domain: he had 11 rebounds, 4 offensive to go with 8 more from Stokes. Tennessee's post duo grabbed 19 rebounds, while Henry and Holloway had just 8. Tennessee needs to win this battle again tonight.

Here again, we must point out that as long as Kenny Hall isn't playing, it is crucial that Maymon and Stokes stay out of foul trouble. Dwight Miller was huge in the first meeting as we said, but you can't count on that production to just magically appear again in New Orleans.

Take care of the basketball

The Vols have been lights out in Knoxville and have won three of their last four road games. But when it goes south for Tennessee away from Thompson-Boling, it's usually because we don't take care of the rock. This starts, as always, with Trae Golden, who continues to be among the SEC leaders in assists and turnovers. But it will very much include Stokes and Maymon in the post as Ole Miss comes at them. The Vols are good enough to win at their average of 14 turnovers per game, but when that number starts creeping toward 20 Tennessee's chances go way down. Like Maymon and Stokes staying out of foul trouble, you can write this one in ink for every game the Vols will play the rest of the season.

Who is the x-factor?

If it's not going to be Dwight Miller again, who will step up for Tennessee? The Vols have been getting great production from Maymon and Stokes, and are always at their best when Golden contributes as well. After that, Tennessee has needed one more guy to step up every night, and during this winning streak they've been getting it:

  • vs Georgia: Jordan McRae 14
  • vs South Carolina: Skylar McBee 18
  • at Florida: Skylar McBee 13
  • vs Arkansas: Jordan McRae 14
  • vs Ole Miss: Dwight Miller 10
  • at South Carolina: Jordan McRae 16
  • at LSU: Cameron Tatum 9
  • vs Vanderbilt: Cameron Tatum 18
The Vols need one of their other guys to step up to get it done. On most nights it can be any one of McBee, McRae, or Tatum. But one of them needs to be that guy that gives us double digits to push our offensive production over the top. At times it's been two of those guys, which is especially helpful if Golden or Stokes has been off (because Maymon is never off, son). But Tennessee's best chance to win is to get strong efforts from Maymon, Stokes, and Golden, and then have one more guy go off. Who's it gonna be tonight?

Avoid the Aberration

Things Ole Miss is not good at: three point shooting, where they hit just 30.8% (301st nationally - 10th in the SEC), and free throw shooting, where they are an abysmal 59.5% as a team (338th nationally - dead last in the SEC). They shot 27.3% from the arc and 58.3% at the line in Knoxville. We'll take that again, thank you very much.

Tennessee shouldn't have to worry about the three ball nearly as much as they did against Vanderbilt on Saturday, but that means guys like McBee and Tatum need to be good defenders off the bounce tonight. If the Vols get a lead on this team, they'll have a harder time recovering from it. And good defense that involves not fouling will keep Ole Miss from hurting us at the free throw line in the first place. Tennessee just wants to avoid the hot shooting night where all of a sudden Ole Miss is raining threes from everywhere because we weren't prepared to guard the perimeter. Ole Miss shot 32 free throws against Auburn...that number needs to come down too.

Play Tennessee Defense

That's a fun thing to type, because we both know what it means and know we can expect it.

As is the case against Ole Miss, Kentucky, and everyone left in between, if the Vols defend the way they're capable of defending, we will have a chance to win. Tennessee is 35th nationally in defensive efficiency ratings; the Vols get it done with all five men on the floor, and that's been our calling card and the reason we're on this run. We've seen this team make runs and stage comebacks using fierce, consistent defense, and we have become the team that no one wants to play. It's the Cuonzo Martin way. And if we keep following it, Tennessee will keep having a chance to win every game they play.

If the Vols defend well against Ole Miss, take care of the basketball, get what we've been getting from our best players and have that one extra guy step up? We're headed to Saturday, and this dream stays alive one more day.

Go Vols.