The Vols come out of Saturday's loss at Kentucky at 11-6 (2-2) with plenty of opportunity directly in front of them. The next opportunity comes tonight against an Arkansas team still hanging on the fringe of the bubble conversation at 68 in the RPI, but in desperate need of a road win.
This is the part where we talk about how bad Arkansas is on the road, and in this case the low hanging fruit is ripe: since their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008, Arkansas is 7-43 on the road and 6-37 in conference road games. For reference the Vols are 26-32 (22-21) on the road over the same span.
The last two years Arkansas' only road wins have come at Auburn, with their nine road losses coming by an average of 14.6 points in 2012 and 15.2 points in 2013. In this case it's not hyperbole, it's real: Arkansas is just a terrible basketball team on the road. This year they tried scheduling zero non-conference road games, but that hasn't worked so far either: Texas A&M beat them by 16 in College Station, then Georgia beat them in overtime in Athens.
So Tennessee should have few problems in Thompson-Boling Arena, right? Even though we've already lost two home games to teams with drastically lower RPI/KenPom ratings than Arkansas, right?
Let's suspend all the home court advantage stuff for a second and just talk about the matchup. If Tennessee wants to get up and down the floor more, tonight will be an interesting case study: Arkansas leads the SEC in pace of play and is third in points per possession, so they've been fairly efficient despite the fast pace. The Hogs will shoot a lot of threes and they've been excellent at taking care of the basketball, leading the league in assist/turnover ratio. However their style of play puts a lesser emphasis on rebounding, so Tennessee's already huge advantage there should be easily extended.
Arkansas plays a deep bench and has four players averaging double figures, led by 6'6" sophomore guard Michael Qualls, 6'10" freshman Bobby Portis, and 6'5" junior Rashad Madden, currently shooting 47.3% from the arc. It's been one thing for the Vols to get out and run on Virginia and LSU. Will Tennessee look to beat Arkansas at its own game, or will the Vols return to slowdown basketball to try and take Arkansas out of its element? Tennessee is still second in the nation in scoring possession percentage, leads the SEC in points per possession, and is now the second best rebounding team in the country. These are all numbers that will drive you crazy when paired with an 11-6 record; the Vols are 23rd in Ken Pomerory's rankings but you have to go all the way down to North Carolina at 48 to find another team with 6+ losses thus far.
The big thing tonight if the Vols run: take care of the basketball. Tennessee is second in the league in assist/turnover ratio and second in turnover percentage, but those numbers have taken a beating in SEC play after UT averaged single digit turnovers during the non-conference portion of the schedule. Jordan McRae in particular has been unusually sloppy the last few games, leading the Vols to a negative assist/turnover ratio in each of the four SEC games thus far.
Arkansas is fast and balanced, while the Vols are balanced but potentially diverse. I'll be really curious to see how Cuonzo directs the guys to play tonight, foot on the gas or back off and grind. Either way, if Tennessee can hit Arkansas early an unbelievably bad road team could find themselves folding in a hurry again. The Hogs have ability as witnessed by their overtime loss to Florida and win over Kentucky in Fayetteville. But that ability hasn't manifested itself outside the city limits in more than six years.
Arkansas is, of course, going to have to win some road games somewhere to climb back into the NCAA Tournament picture. And if the Vols want to stay in that picture they can't afford home losses to non-elite teams. So it's a big night for both teams and a very important opportunity. Can the Vols bounce back after a disappointing loss at Kentucky and move forward tonight?
8:00 PM ET, SEC Network. Go Vols.