Tennessee needs to put a good taste back in its mouth, and thankfully tonight's opponent carries enough name recognition to do just that. Saturday's loss at Wichita State leaves the Vols without a signature win for the moment, meaning Tennessee will have to build a tournament resume on consistency. That journey restarts with a four game homestand to close the non-conference portion of the schedule, starting tonight against NC State.
Mark Gottfried's Wolfpack were ranked 6th in last year's preseason polls but came up on the short end of close games too often, finishing 24-9 in the regular season with four losses by three points or less. That earned them an eight seed where they lost another close game to Temple 76-72, ending their season far sooner than many of their fans expected I'm sure.
Gone are their top four leading scorers from last year, giving way to a 7-2 start this year that includes an 11 point loss at Cincinnati (who just got hammered by our friends from Xavier) and an overtime stunner against North Carolina Central. Considering UNC Central managed to beat them by 10 in overtime, the Wolfpack have only played one game with a single digit margin this year: an 82-79 escape over Detroit on Saturday.
The clear leader here is 6'8" sophomore forward T.J. Warren, currently sixth in the nation and second among major conference players in scoring at 23.3 points per game. So far the story is they go as he goes: in the two losses Warren was slowed to 13 points, fouling out against UNC Central and held to 5 of 15 against Cincinnati. In the seven wins Warren has scored between 22 and 30 points every time. He'll step out and shoot the three ball, averaging just shy of three attempts per game. That means it'll be interesting to see who the Vols choose to defend him with. Gottfried runs a tight rotation with seven players averaging 22+ minutes; Warren puts in more than 30% of his team's points with freshman guard Anthony Barber and junior guard Desmond Lee also averaging double figures.
As you can see, this team will score the basketball as the kids say. They shoot 49.2% from the floor, 30th in the nation. Cincinnati held them to 32.8% from the floor, but otherwise they've been very good. The good news is they shoot free throws even worse than we do, 65.8% being just worse than our 67.6%, both of which fall in the lower third of college basketball.
This team plays inside the arc: a whopping 64.7% of their points come from twos, the fourth highest percentage in the nation. They still average 15.7 threes per game, but they're not strong from the arc at a chilly 29.1%, 315th in the nation. They're also strong on the offensive glass, though not as good as we are; the Vols are still 5th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage even after Wichita handled us inside.
The things that plague Tennessee often go together. We get offensive rebounds, but we struggle to convert chances at the free throw line. When Jarnell Stokes gets in foul trouble, teams can play more zone without he and Jeronne Maymon on the floor together. When teams play more zone, we get tempted to just shoot threes. And when all of those things work against us...we struggle to get offensive rebounds.
So any keys to victory conversation for this Tennessee team is going to include two obvious points: one, don't miss layups (duh), and two, keep Jarnell on the floor.
I'll be curious to see if the Vols come out flat tonight; you get the sense that Wichita game meant a lot to them (rightfully so; the Shockers won at Alabama Tuesday night) and we played pretty well for the first 30 minutes, at least from an energy and focus standpoint even though we missed several opportunities in execution and, you know, layups. Now here comes a home game that probably won't have a hostile crowd with students gone and fans a little disillusioned with another early season struggle. Meanwhile NC State I'm sure sees this as an opportunity; we're expected to win at home, but they've got more to gain with a quality road win. Gottfried has won in our building plenty of times before with the Crimson Tide.
This is a game both teams need at this point after missed opportunities against Cincinnati and Wichita, and we both have a bad loss on the resume as well. The Vols are seven point favorites and have been pretty strong in Thompson-Boling Arena under Cuonzo Martin, just four losses since January 1, 2012 and three of them to tournament teams including Kentucky's National Championship squad. It will take pretty strong to get another W tonight, and it is one the Vols desperately need right now.
7:00 PM, ESPNU. Go Vols.