If you're just seeing the score this morning, you missed a lot of frustration between Tennessee, Xavier, and the ultimate four point margin. The Musketeers were favored by 3.5 and playing at home in the Cintas Center, so the outcome may not be a shocker and a four point loss at Xavier isn't something to get depressed about. But it was the way the Vols played - and had Xavier lost, they may have been lamenting many of the same things - and a familiar struggle on offense that really make this one feel worse.
The Vols shot 42.1% from the floor, which is downright amazing when you consider they started 1 of 17. The Vols shot nearly 60% the rest of the way, played strong defense and forced 11 turnovers in the first half to stay within range of the Musketeers, but could never tie the game or take the lead in the second half. A huge part of that: the free throw line, where the Vols shot 7 of 19 (36.8%).
The go-to stat for Tennessee last year was this: did the Vols shoot more threes or more free throws? More threes, especially on a team with no great shooters and few good ones, was usually a sign of frustration and impatience. Tennessee's game, even without Jeronne Maymon on the floor, was to bang inside and get to the line. When we did that, we usually won.
Tonight the Vols shot 19 of each. But with Maymon and Stokes back out there together, and especially with hyper-vigilant referees calling just about everything, Tennessee should not be anywhere close to even in those two stats on a good night. And on any night, the Vols can't shoot 36.8% from the line against a team with a pulse and expect to win.
Also, let's say this for probably the first of many times this year: you may disagree with how they're calling games now, but it's not going to change. Tennessee, like every other team in America, has to adjust. Period. I don't want to spend the whole season watching incredulous looks as our guys go to the bench with their second early foul. This is reality now. Adjust, and take advantage of it before it takes advantage of you. Get back to the free throw line and play cleaner defense.
The Vols were fortunate to even be in this thing, but Xavier was also game, shooting just 54.2% at the line themselves and made only a pair of threes. Semaj Christon was great from the field and could've had a spectacular night, but he went just 4 of 10 from the line to finish with 18 instead of 20something. The Vols got out-rebounded in part because Jarnell Stokes couldn't stay on the floor with foul trouble. Jordan McRae finished with 23, thanks in part to a three point shooting spree in the final minute to keep the Vols in it while Xavier kept going to the line. But before the final sequence he attempted just two shots in the second half and never got going in Tennessee's offense.
Tennessee's offense is allowed to still be figuring itself out early. But when it so closely resembles the disjointed offenses that have shown up early in the last two years, especially with so many talented pieces and so many of the same pieces, it's cause for concern. Stokes has to stay on the floor. Maymon - a bright spot because of his energy and effort - has to shake off the rust. If McRae is going to be the alpha dog offensively - his 18 shots tonight were 10 more than anyone else took - the Vols need to keep him involved throughout the entire game.
And the rest of the pieces have to come together. Antonio Barton put in some nice work with 10 points and 4 assists. Robert Hubbs had an o-fer on four attempts, but I doubt we'll see a lot of that. Tennessee played 11 guys, but I doubt that'll be the case all year.
The "Fire Cuonzo!" stuff is an overreaction, of course, but fans are justifiably frustrated to see this team struggle with the same things and lose the same close games at the start of every season. And in each of the last two years, it's been the early losses that eventually kept the Vols off the dance floor. Things will tighten up. But they have to tighten up faster than we've seen under Cuonzo before. Tennessee gets South Carolina Upstate, The Citadel, and Tennessee State before heading to Atlantis on Thanksgiving, where they'll face UTEP then could see this Xavier team again the next day. Will this team be playing noticeably better basketball by then? Can they make progress faster than their predecessors? If the Vols are going to get where they want to go, the answer has to be yes.