Tennessee, you'll remember, beat Mercer in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament 83-63, two days after the Bears took down the three-seed Duke Blue Devils in Raleigh. The Vols had four players in double figures that evening, led by Josh Richardson's 26 points. But those 26 are the only points still on Tennessee's roster this season. Mercer is one of the few teams in college basketball who might be facing an even bigger turnover: all five starters from that day in Raleigh are gone; this year's leading scorer Ike Nwamu had a dozen off the bench, and Jibri Bryan put in two, and that's it. So it's a rematch, but these are two completely different teams.
You'll note Mercer is 6-5 with losses at Seton Hall and Colorado State, as well as to Pacific, Dartmouth, and to UC Santa Barbara in overtime. Their best win is your choice of Rice (RPI 285), VMI (RPI 272), or Kennesaw State (RPI 311). But you should also note Tennessee Tech was only slightly more battle tested, and they almost beat the Vols on Friday before a pair of and-ones by Armani Moore and Devon Baulkman pushed a 52-51 game with 2:15 left to 58-51 with 53 seconds to play. Tennessee isn't good enough to overlook anyone. Mercer is projected to be the second-worst team the Vols play all year with an RPI Forecast of 244 (followed on Saturday by Tennessee State, the only RPI 250+ team the Vols should face this season). But the name recognition from last year's NCAA Tournament should be enough to prevent any looking forward.
The Vols find themselves hanging out in the mid-60s in RPI as I write this on Sunday evening, bolstered by the nation's 9th toughest schedule right now by that formula and projected to finish 27th toughest overall by KenPom. As long as Tennessee hangs out in that range - which will dive a little because of quality of opponent over the next three games, but not nearly as much as it would if we were to lose one - you can think careful thoughts about postseason opportunities. But as long as the Vols are playing one possession games late with the Tennessee Techs of the world, you can remind yourself how crazy that is and just focus on getting the next win, even when the opponent is Mercer. Every win should be celebrated with this team.
Tennessee continues to be powered by Josh Richardson (16.9 points in 35.2 minutes, which is a lot), Armani Moore (10.4 points in 29.2 minutes), and Kevin Punter (10.6 points in 31.7 minutes). Beyond those three no one is scoring more than seven points per game (Detrick Mostella is next at 6.9), and no one is getting more than 20 minutes (Derek Reese is next at 19.9). Tennessee continues to be limited in the post as Jabari McGhee will miss six to eight weeks after a foot injury at NC State last week, putting him back for the second half of SEC action. Still, the Vols are getting a huge percentage of their points from two point shots, averaging just 15.2 threes per game (last year's team had Stokes and Maymon and still took 17.1 threes per game). Tennessee is still scrappy on the offensive glass, still great at creating turnovers, and still fouling like crazy (though it's come down to 22.9 per game).
I'm not sure how much more we'll learn over these next three games before league play begins, but the most important thing is simply to keep winning. Get to SEC play at 8-4, and all your goals will be on the table. From there, even a slightly above .500 number in conference - not unreasonable given what we've seen against Butler and Kansas State - could get Tennessee in at least the NIT conversation; 8-4 and 10-8 gets you at 18-12 heading to the SEC Tournament. Anyone following this team would jump on that going into league play.
First thing's first: win the games you should win. We'll see how much Mercer has changed tonight, as the young Vols continue to adapt and advance themselves.
7:00 PM, SEC Network. Dane Bradshaw's on the call, who knows a thing or two about being undersized in the post.