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Tennessee vs ETSU Preview

The Vols finish the non-conference portion of the year with a visit from another in-state foe.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
ETSU Buccaneers (2014 - Pres)
RPI: 183
KenPom: 171
December 31, 2014
1:00 p.m. ET | Thompson-Boling Arena - Knoxville, TN
Television: SEC Network
Live Video: Watch ESPN
Live Audio: Vol Network
Tennessee logo
RPI: 82
KenPom: 95

Donnie Tyndall's Vols have given themselves an opportunity to give themselves an opportunity, if you will.  In today's non-conference finale, Tennessee can move to 8-4 on the year with a win.  8-4 would've been impressive any way you sliced it for this team, but this 8-4 would come with two quality wins and zero bad losses.  It would mean Tennessee took care of all their business, winning the games they were supposed to win but teams with total turnover, first year coaches, and off-court clouds tend to lose.  Bruce Pearl's last team and Cuonzo Martin's first team lost to Oakland (twice), Charlotte, College of Charleston (twice), and Austin Peay.  Even recent postseason-bound Tennessee teams haven't escaped the non-conference toe stub, like last year's Sweet 16 Vols losing to UTEP.

But this team, picked to finish 13th in the SEC, has a chance to think about far more than moving up the conference ladder if they can finish their business today.  The SEC currently has ten teams in the RPI Top 101, including the Vols at 82 (who took a dive by simply scheduling Tennessee State).  The league hasn't fully broken through in the quality win department, but by scheduling up it has ensured that a truly bad loss in the SEC will be almost non-existent.

Those fun what-if conversations about postseason tournaments (and don't be fooled:  the NIT would be a tremendous success for this team) need a resume that doesn't have to depend on a bunch of quality wins and/or a gaudy SEC number to overrule bad losses.  Consider this:  while last year's Tennessee team was a KenPom darling where this year's is currently sitting back at 95, the '13-'14 Vols also had four non-conference losses and went only 11-7 in the SEC, and they still got on the right side of the bubble.  Win today, and you don't have to put up something truly absurd in league play to get back in the conversation.

But you can't really have the conversation at all, at least not semi-seriously, without a win today.  The resume needs to stay clean from bad losses, and the Vols need to keep momentum going into league play.  And none of these "should win" games have been free so far for Tennessee:

  • Texas Southern (RPI 88 - KenPom 176) - Down 41-40 with 13:21 to go, won 70-58
  • Santa Clara (RPI 188 - KenPom 170) - Down 30-27 at halftime, won 64-57
  • Tennessee Tech (RPI 150 - KenPom 191) - Down 40-35 with 14:26 to go, won 61-58
  • Mercer (RPI 266 - KenPom 243) - Up 43-39 with 7:46 to go, won 64-54
  • Tennessee State (RPI 340 - KenPom 336) - Down 38-37 with 14:33 to go, won 67-46
ETSU comes in with an RPI of 183 and and KenPom rating of 171.  The Bucs are 6-3, having lost two of their last three at UNC Greensboro by a point and at VCU 84-60.  This team plays fast and they shoot threes, 58th nationally in pace and hitting 41.2% of their treys.  The Bucs get a greater percentage of their points from the arc than any team in college basketball, even VMI.  ETSU has five players shooting at least 39% from three, which is absurd, and three of them average at least six threes attempted per game.  Rashawn Rembert is taking ten threes per game, one of only three players in the nation with this distinction, and he's a 38.9% shooter from deep.  For a Tennessee team that will leave shooters open in a zone defense, this could be trouble.  And it's not rocket science:  in six wins ETSU has shot below 40% from the arc just once, 37.5% in a two point win over Winthrop.  In three losses they were 8 of 24 at Valparaiso, 11 of 32 against UNC Greensboro, and 9 of 24 at VCU.  Not much worse, but right now if they're not great from three they're not winning.

The good news for Tennessee:  ETSU is not a good defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot 44.2% from the field.  The danger here is usually playing against a three point shooting team and thus being tempted to jack threes yourself in an up and down game.  But the Vols are better suited playing to their strengths and attacking the basket off their offense.

This should be close and entertaining, which would make it no different from any of Tennessee's first 11 games and probably no different than the next 18 to come in league play.  If the Vols can survive ETSU's three point barrage and capitalize on the other end, we'll head to SEC play feeling better than any of us probably thought we would about ourselves.  Let's see if the Vols can take care of business one more time.

1:00 PM, SEC Network.  Go Vols.