Coming out of Orlando we hoped the Vols would just win one of their three game power conference test. Then Tennessee beat Kansas State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, so we thought, hey, we can play #15 Butler with no pressure and all opportunity. Then the Vols beat Butler by a dozen. And now everyone is watching this team again, so they might as well keep winning.
That will involve getting it done in the season's first true road test, in Raleigh tonight to face NC State. The Wolfpack blitzed Tennessee last season, building a 37-20 halftime lead in a 65-58 victory. T.J. Warren, who lit up Tennessee's defense for 21 points and 11 rebounds, is currently playing 11 minutes a night for the Phoenix Suns. But a familiar face has taken his spot as the Wolfpack's leading scorer: Trevor Lacey transferred in from Alabama to play for former Tide coach Mark Gottfried and is averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 42.5% from the arc. Two years ago Lacey scored 32 points in three meetings with Tennessee.
The supporting cast from last year's NCAA Tournament team is back: Ralson Turner averages 13.1 points and shoots 40.7% from three, Anthony Barber adds 11.9 per game, and the Wolfpack have nine guys getting double digit minutes. They're hard to figure out simply because they really haven't played anybody; their strength of schedule currently ranks 306th at KenPom, where the Wolfpack are rated 48th overall (the Vols are currently 89th with the 41st most difficult schedule).
NC State's best win is Boise State, 60-54 on November 28. They lost 66-61 at Purdue on December 2, and lost at home to Wofford (the current favorite in the Southern Conference) last time out when they just caught the buzzer on what would have been a game-winning three.
Three thoughts on tonight's match-up:
- Tennessee better go strong to the hole (or just shoot jumpers). NC State blocks 6.9 shots per game, fifth in the nation, and sends away 11.7% of opponents' shots, eighth in the nation (contain your shock: Kentucky leads the free world in this category, rejecting 15.4% of opponents' shots). Sophomore BeeJay Anya, who goes 6'9" 300 lbs, is tossing 3.7 shots in just 20 minutes per game. The Wolfpack blocked a dozen Vol shots last year and Anya got five of them. Tennessee made a lot of tough twos against Butler, especially in the first half. The Vols might be better off just taking those pull-up jumpers against this bunch; it wouldn't be that out of character for us anyway. Tennessee is getting 60.7% of its points from two point shots, the 17th highest percentage in the nation.
- Tennessee press vs NC State ball security. Again, consider who both teams have played. NC State is 23rd nationally in turnover percentage, giving the ball away on just 16.2% of their possessions and just 10.9 times per game. Tennessee is 37th nationally in defensive turnover percentage, forcing a turnover on 23.9% of possessions and averaging 15 per game. The Wolfpack are untested but gave it away just 15.8% of the time last year, so the same veteran ball-handlers should present a steeper challenge for Tennessee's pressure defense.
- On the road, how will Tennessee respond to success? We've got adversity down at the moment, but this is Tennessee's first true road game of the season. Seven games and two big wins in, we're starting to get a feel for the DNA of this team. Josh Richardson and Armani Moore are from Cuonzo Martin's school of never being too high or too low, which can provide consistency in a potentially hostile environment (though this is the same building where Richardson went off against UMass and Mercer in the NCAA Tournament). Those two combine with Kevin Punter to provide Tennessee's punch offensively: all three are averaging double figures and playing significantly more minutes than any other Vols. From there it's been a bit of who's who every night, which can get you beat on the road if no one shows up to be those fourth or fifth options you need. Against Butler it was Derek Reese with five points and five rebounds off the bench. Against Kansas State it was Willie Carmichael with nine points, six rebounds, and two blocks. Jabari McGhee showed flashes in Orlando. And the Vols could always get a hot game from Detrick Mostella, and the story still hasn't been fully written on Robert Hubbs. Tennessee will need more than its upperclassmen to step up consistently, but for now it's been enough to get two huge wins. Will it be enough on the road? A big step for maturity and consistency is on the table tonight; if Tennessee wins this one, you're allowed to start thinking about acronyms that start with the letter N.
7:00 PM ET, ESPN2. Let's see what else we can learn about this team. For more on NC State, check out Backing the Pack.