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Tennessee vs Butler: Opportunity

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A hot Butler squad comes to Knoxville on Sunday to face a Tennessee team that's learning how to win.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee's young basketball team got the win it needed to get against Kansas State last weekend, though if you watched it the final minute probably made you feel a little different about the outcome.  Coming into a three game run against the Wildcats, Butler, and at NC State over the course of a dozen days, the Vols needed at least one win to get or keep fans interested.  It's one thing to say you know this team is young and they're going to struggle.  It's another to experience long losing streaks and a non-competitive brand of basketball that hasn't been seen around here in a decade.

It was a big one for Donnie Tyndall as well, building on the positive momentum he earned in Orlando when the Vols were competitive with Kansas.  The longer the NCAA investigation drags on, the longer Tennessee fans will be able to make up their minds about him based on on-court results.  It's one thing to know you're going to struggle, it's another to know it in the midst of a black cloud of potential allegations.  But beating Kansas State, by the 10 points we were up with a minute to go or the single digit on the final tally, allows you to believe in Tyndall's Vols enough to invest.  Maybe just a little at first, and they're still probably going to lose more than we're used to this year, but the presence of competitiveness - the idea I can sit down in Thompson-Boling or turn on a game and think, "Hey, we might win..." - goes a long way, especially in years like this one.

So into this conversation steps Butler, who might be one of the best teams we'll face the rest of the season.  The Vols of course get Kentucky and Florida, but both only once this season.  The Bulldogs currently sit at 8-1, and it's full of quality:  over Thanksgiving they beat North Carolina, lost to Oklahoma, then beat Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis.  That's good for 15th in the AP Poll and 27th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, making them the tallest non-Cats/Gators task left on the schedule.

And as confidence grows and with a quality win under their belt, Tyndall and the Vols are free to treat this one more like an opportunity and less with the pressure of needing to win one of these.

The Bulldogs come with an unusual coaching situation:  Brandon Miller followed Brad Stevens after he left for the Boston Celtics, but Miller took an unspecified medical leave of absence just before the season began this fall.  No further details have emerged and in this story from USA Today interim coach Chris Holtmann joins basically everyone in not really knowing what's going on with Miller.  Certainly everyone's thoughts and prayers go out to Miller, his family, and the Butler program.

Under Holtmann Butler has rediscovered some of the success it found under Stevens, who led the Bulldogs to five NCAA Tournaments in six years and a pair of appearances in the National Championship Game.  Butler waxed Bruce Pearl's second team in the preseason NIT, then took Pearl's 2008 two-seed Vols to overtime in the Round of 32.  Last year they fell to 14-17 in their first year of Big East play, but obviously the early returns this year are very good.

Three thoughts for the Vols and Butler:

  1. These dudes play defense. You don't get a complete picture just nine games into a season, but tendencies quickly emerge.  Butler has played a tough schedule and is still sixth nationally in points per possession allowed.  Opposing teams are shooting just 38.5% against them and an icy 25.3% from the three point line; UNC and Georgetown combined for just 8 of 29 (27.5%).  The Vols have the reliable options we thought they would - Josh Richardson averages 16.0 per game, Armani Moore 11.0 - and then there's much uncertainty.  You'd like to see Kevin Punter and Detrick Mostella both be on in the same 40 minutes, and then I think Tennessee could really be productive.  But against this defense, Sunday may not be the time.
  2. There will be turnovers. Tennessee is forcing 15.2 turnovers per game, and got Kansas State 22 times in victory.  That's a good sign for a system that should only get better as the Vols play it more.  The bad news:  Butler is forcing 17.3 turnovers per game, almost as many as the VCU team (17.6) that victimized Tennessee in the opener.
  3. Keep your hands to yourself. There are 351 teams in Division I basketball.  Tennessee is 348th in fouls per game, a whopping 25 per night.  Opposing teams are getting 37.8% of their points against the Vols from the free throw line, third highest in the nation.  Big man Dominic Woodson may or may not return with academic issues as final exams come to an end.  But Tennessee has had plenty of foul problems without his help; this is a much smaller team when he's not on the floor, and they're overcompensating with super-aggression.  So sometimes you get 22 turnovers, and sometimes you get 25 fouls.  Even better:  Butler is really good at getting to the line, 44th nationally in free throw rate.  Here's hoping for a good whistle in a good home environment.
The Bulldogs have been rolling, while the Vols are still finding themselves in both defeat and now victory.  But Tyndall and Tennessee are looking to hold your attention, and this is the biggest opportunity to do so until Bruce Pearl comes to Knoxville on January 31.  2:00 PM Sunday, ESPNU.  Let's see what this team can do in its first home game against a ranked foe.

Go Vols.