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Tennessee at Wichita State Preview

Here comes basketball season, with a fury.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

We're a quarter of the way into Tennessee's 2013-14 basketball season and business is about to pick up.  The Vols are 6-2 with a four point loss at Xavier and a terrible performance against UTEP in the Bahamas, although Tennessee rebounded to beat Xavier in a rematch and then Wake Forest to finish up the Battle 4 Atlantis.  It's still a little difficult to get a handle on what those games mean; Xavier went 0-for-Atlantis with losses to #23 Iowa and USC, while Wake is a respectable 8-2 in the early going.  The Vols are currently 34th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.

But not only are the Vols about to get a surefire test of their ability, they're about to play one of the most important games of the year.

Remember:  no Memphis this year, and only one game against Kentucky.  That's an automatic hit to UT's strength of schedule and potential RPI number, which will once again be significantly hindered by what is becoming an alarming annual chasm between the top and bottom of the SEC.

Kentucky is not a 1 seed right now, though get back with me after they face North Carolina, Belmont, and Louisville in the next 16 days.  Florida is Florida, knocking off Kansas to get their first signature win after narrow defeats at Wisconsin and UConn.  Missouri is undefeated at 9-0 with a nine point win over UCLA.  But in the grand scheme of things, you can consider Missouri Vanderbilt's replacement in that top tier as the Commodores continue to rebuild, and otherwise the league looks almost exactly the same as it has for the last four years:  Florida will dance, Vanderbilt then/Missouri now will dance, Kentucky will go as their freshmen go, Alabama will be on the bubble, Tennessee will be in or on the bubble, and unless someone else wins the SEC Tournament that's about it.  Four-ish teams are getting in.  Maybe it's three, maybe it's five, definitely it stinks from there on down.

Here are the league's representatives in the last five NCAA Tournaments:

  • 2009:  3 (LSU 8, Tennessee 9, Mississippi State 13)
  • 2010:  4 (Kentucky 1, Vanderbilt 4, Tennessee 6, Florida 10)
  • 2011:  5 (Florida 2, Kentucky 4, Vanderbilt 5, Tennessee 9, Georgia 10)
  • 2012:  4 (Kentucky 1, Vanderbilt 5, Florida 7, Alabama 9)
  • 2013:  3 (Florida 3, Missouri 9, Ole Miss 12)
I know we don't do divisions anymore, but consider only two teams from the old SEC West (2009 LSU & 2012 Alabama) have made the tournament as an at-large selection in the last five years.  You haven't been able to count on the SEC to help you in SOS/RPI for the last five years, and it doesn't look to be any different this season.

The larger reasons why are the subject for another day; there's a timing parallel with the one-and-done rule, but I'm not sure that's directly hurting the Texas A&M's of the world.  Not everyone is going to come through the non-conference unscathed, even those who don't schedule up.  But right now other than 9-0 Mizzou every team in the league has at least two losses. You have your Kentuckys and Floridas who lost to high-profile opponents.  But you also have teams like Alabama, losers of four to Oklahoma, Duke, Drexel, and South Florida.  Tough schedules are only good if you win some of them.  The SEC is currently 7th in RPI, trailing the usual suspects and the Atlantic 10.

The Vols do get to play Florida twice and Missouri twice this season, but there should be few signature wins available once conference play begins.  Quality wins, sure, but the kind that will make you famous will be scarce.  The Vols missed Kansas and Iowa and Villanova, all now ranked, in the Bahamas.  UT's other big non-conference dates are at home against NC State (December 18) and Virginia (December 30).  The Cavaliers have losses to a pair of Top 15 teams in VCU and Wisconsin, but also lost to something called Green Bay Phoenix.  The Wolfpack lost to North Carolina Central.  These aren't the droids you're looking for.

All of that to say this:  tomorrow's game at Wichita State could represent our only signature non-conference win of the season. And when you play in the SEC these days, you could really use one of those.

Wichita is 9-0, 12th in the AP, 8th in the coaches', 14th in KenPom.  And don't forget, this was a Final Four team last season, up double digits on Louisville in the second half before losing by four in the national semifinal.

This is also a team Tennessee beat last year, 69-60 in Knoxville to end another 9-0 start from the Shockers.  The Vols won despite just 18 minutes from Jarnell Stokes, plagued with foul trouble allowing Carl Hall to go off for 21 points and 9 rebounds.  Tennessee made up the difference at the free throw line, an incredible 29 of 36 performance to help put the game away in the last four minutes.

Hall is thankfully gone, but 6'8" Cleanthony Early is back.  The Vols held him to 0 for 5 from the floor in last year's contest, but he's averaging 14.3 points and 6.4 rebounds this season.  He's joined by guard Ron Baker as the team's leading scorers, with the sophomore guard averaging 15.3 and shooting 40% from three.  5'11" point guard Fred VanFleet and Tekele Cotton, a third guard, also average more than ten points per game to give the Shockers four double figure scorers.  And this team comes with a familiar face:  former Bruce Pearl assistant Steve Forbes now works for Wichita State.

Key Stats
  • Points Per Possession - For all the talk about how inefficient our offense can be, here's Tennessee at #16 in the nation in points per possession eight games into the season.  The Vols average 1.2 points every trip down the floor; Wichita isn't far behind at 1.15, 40th nationally.  These are two smart, efficient teams who are good at making the most out of each opportunity down the floor.
  • Free Throw Rate - As represented in the Four Factors graphic above, both teams are excellent in this category as well.  This was the go-to stat for the Vols last year, especially in comparison to three point shooting.  The Vols are currently getting 25.5% of their points at the line and just 19.1% beyond the arc, a three point percentage ranking of 305th nationally.  If we want to shoot better than 33.6% from back there that's fine with me, but it's a nice sign of maturity that this team is playing to its strengths and not relying on the three ball to save the day, because it won't always deliver.  Likewise, Wichita is also great at getting to the free throw line and as a team is shooting a strong 73.2%.
  • Offensive Rebounding Percentage - To no surprise, we're awesome at this:  second in the nation and getting the rebound on almost half of our misses (45.3%).  Wichita certainly isn't bad at this, but they ain't us, and few opponents will be this season.  If Stokes and Maymon stay out of foul trouble - a huge deal for Tennessee every game, but especially tomorrow - Wichita is going to have to go to a different script than the one they've been using to beat us, because we too write that script and our penmanship is superior.
  • Assist Percentage - Right now the Vols are only scoring off an assist 43.3% of the time, 309th nationally.  I expect that stat to come back to the middle a little bit because things are still a little weird eight games in, but I believe that number is one part Jordan McRae creating on his own and one part our massive offensive rebounding numbers.  The good news on the other end is we have a 1.22 assist/turnover ratio and Darius Thompson in particular has been spectacular about taking care of the basketball.  Wichita is good here too, and actually better at 1.35, 43rd nationally.
Their strengths being our strengths and we being at least statistically superior in most of those areas, you feel like this is a game Tennessee has every right to win.  However, the Vols haven't won a game like this yet, at least not this season even though most of the pieces were involved in some big wins down the stretch last year.  Meanwhile this Wichita team went into Saint Louis and scored a big victory.  They're at Alabama next week and then Missouri Valley play follows soon after; one reason this is a game Tennessee wants to win is because Wichita should put up a huge win-loss number that would be extraordinarily helpful in RPI.

One other possible consideration:  although they made the Final Four last year, isn't it still a big deal for Wichita to be playing a nationally televised non-bracket busters game like this at home?  When Jerry Green was putting us back in the NCAA Tournament more than ten years ago I remember how cool it was at first to be on something other than JP Sports.  Even if it's ESPN2, I think this game and this moment are a bigtime deal for Wichita and their fanbase to get at home.  So I would expect a ton of hostility Tennessee will have to deal with and get past to bring this thing home.

This isn't a must-win; there's not much shame in losing to a top ten team on the road.  But Tennessee's opportunities on this schedule are fewer and farther between than usual thanks to the loss of two rivalry games and a bad week in the Bahamas.  When that graphic goes up next to Tennessee in February, whether it's for the bubble or for championship contenders, you want this game on the left side in the win column, because without it I'm not sure what's going up there outside of league play.  For all of Tennessee's slow starts that have cost them in March, Cuonzo Martin has to impress on his squad the importance of this game, on the road against a really good team.

I think we're also a really good team, and we're really good at the things they like to do.  Can Tennessee seize this opportunity, play to the moment and get a signature win before SEC play?  If the narrative of this season is split between bracket or bubble, this game can go such a long way in determining which story we'll be telling later in the year.

Saturday 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2.  Let's get one to put on the board come March.

Go Vols.