It's Thanksgiving weekend and many who didn't see this game will look at the box score, see a 15 point Kansas victory, and assume. Don't assume. That's the lesson for today with this game and this Tennessee team.
The Vols, who would have plenty of things going against them if they didn't have to deal with an NCAA investigation at Donnie Tyndall's previous stop and the abrupt resignations of two assistants, came to Orlando to fight. And they fought Kansas for 40 minutes, going toe-to-toe with them for the first 34.
A 62-62 tie was the result of a pair of Tennessee runs in the second half when you could have easily assumed the game was over. Kansas led 40-33 at halftime then extended to 53-40 before the first media timeout of the second half, with Cliff Alexander throwing down alley-oops on consecutive possessions as the exclamation point. Tennessee then forced six turnovers before Kansas made another shot, roaring back to 54-53 by the next media timeout behind a three from Derek Reese and two more from Detrick Mostella. Reese got a little trigger happy in this one, going 2 for 7 from behind the arc. But Mostella hit his first four threes, the best version of the streaky shooter we were promised.
Kansas pushed the lead back to 62-57 with 8:27 to go. Then the Vols forced two more turnovers - 16 on the day for Kansas - and Josh Richardson scored to bring the Vols within two, then Armani Moore tied it with two free throws with 6:34 to play.
From there, Tennessee got sloppy. It will happen at times with a very young team playing a very new style of basketball, and it will especially happen when Kansas is on the other end of the floor. Tennessee committed four fouls and two turnovers before its next made basket, a jumper by Kevin Punter, stopped a 7-0 Kansas run to make it 69-64 with five minutes to play. And then the Vols fell a little too in love with the three, as Reese and Mostella missed bad shots. And by then, Kansas had enough distance to keep the game iced at the free throw line. This was the first time the Vols headed to the final minutes in the game with a good team, and they looked a little out of sync offensively in that situation. They'll get better.
Where they are already better than they have any real reason to be is defensively, setting up and often executing a press that creates turnovers and causes real havoc. Donnie Tyndall said Kansas was going to have to knock down threes over the Vol zone; the Jayhawks hit 8 of 19 (42.1%), which was enough to keep Tennessee at bay throughout. And the Vols' inside presence other than Dominic Woodson - who had his moments with five points - was massively undersized against the Jayhawks, as both Jabari McGhee and Willie Carmichael fouled out. Kansas went 26 of 35 at the free throw line, 74.3%. Tennessee was bad, especially early, and got there far less often, finishing 13 of 22 (59.1%).
Still, Tennessee fought and was on the doorstep. Not because they were incredibly hot or incredibly lucky, but because they were able to frustrate a good team defensively and had their own guards take advantage. Josh Richardson (16), Kevin Punter (14), and Detrick Mostella (13) had nearly two-thirds of Tennessee's points. They did young things and they did playing-against-Kansas things.
But you have to be encouraged by today's performance. They'll get the loser of Michigan State/Marquette on Sunday afternoon, a final game at Disney to make a positive impact. Tennessee didn't finish and didn't win, but they fought and were far more competitive than any of us thought they'd be. In a tough situation for this team and a tough situation potentially of his own making for Donnie Tyndall, today made you curious in a good way. This team needs the interest right now, and today the Vols gave you reason to tune in to watch the way they play, and reason to hope they might win sooner than you thought. We'll see what happens Sunday.