Before we go any further, let's remember to celebrate. It's been a rare verb in Knoxville this decade, not seen on the hardwood since the last time we took this stage four long years ago. And after a season of questions and quarreling I'd hate to think all our angst, earned and unearned, has caused us to forget how to celebrate well. We know heartbreak and misery in this athletic department and in this fanbase. But we should also be people who celebrate well, and the past week the occasion has called for it. What Cuonzo Martin and these Vols have done has rapidly exceeded the expectations we held just two weeks ago and now met the expectations we held when the season began. Through peak and valley, this has been a good and successful season for Tennessee Basketball, and I don't want to forget that if we lose one more game.
Having said that, let's talk about how to win one more game.
We've discussed previously Michigan's story and its cast of characters. There is a dominant narrative for both teams, and it appears likely whoever tells it best on Friday night will still be telling it on Sunday. How will each team's strength stand up to the opposition?
Highest seed has the honors...
Michigan Three Point Shooting vs Tennessee Perimeter Defense
The Wolverines shoot 40.2% from the arc, seventh best in the land, and have four guys in their rotation who shoot that percentage or higher while averaging 3-6 attempts per game each. Tennessee allowed fewer three point makes and attempts during the regular season than any other SEC team.
You're going to get length-on-length here: Michigan starts three 6'6" players at the 2-3-4. Nik Stauskas is the All-American, but all three can hurt you. The other two match-ups are getting the bulk of the conversation, but it will be very important for Jordan McRae to defend at an exceptionally high level on what we assume will be Caris LeVert.
But the biggest task should once again fall to Josh Richardson. Here's what Tennessee's best defender and most outstanding player during the NCAA Tournament has done in the month of March:
- Rod Odom, Vanderbilt - 13.7 PPG, 1 of 7, 4 points
- Chris Denson, Auburn - 19.1 PPG, 1 of 10, 3 points
- Jabari Brown, Missouri - 19.9 PPG, 1 of 10, 8 points
- Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina - 13.4 PPG, 3 of 9, 7 points
- Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa - 17.0 PPG, 3 of 15, 7 points
- 21-1 when shooting 43.9% or better (season avg: 45.0%)
- 17-2 when shooting 33.3% or better from three (season avg: 32.5%)
- 19-2 with 12+ assists (season avg: 12)
Tennessee's best basketball, represented in those numbers above, includes an offense going through Stokes and then sharing the basketball off the double team. It has always included a massive interior presence. And most recently it has included an identity built around defense, led by Josh Richardson on the other team's superstar but requiring the presence and effort of every man on the floor. This identity has helped the Vols keep teams from beating them from the three point line throughout this season.
Michigan is one of the best in the country at what they do; there's a chance this ends with the Wolverines shooting 50+ percent from the arc again and we shake our heads and their hands and say good game. But there's also a chance Tennessee's defense frustrates the Wolverines into shooting something less, and Tennessee is able to take advantage with something more on their own end. Michigan is a great basketball team, worthy of their seed and the hype. But right now, Tennessee is a great basketball team too. And tonight, with two contrasting styles among the best of the best, I believe it is truly anyone's game.
For Cuonzo Martin and the Vols, Tennessee is one win away from equaling the best result in school history, earning only the second Elite Eight appearance in school history, and a chance to play one more day for an even greater prize. We have come so far, and there's so much still out there in front of us. But the Vols have continued to be about their business one day, one game, and one moment at a time. Teams take on the nature of their head coach. Right now, I'm glad to see Cuonzo Martin standing over there, because it is his toughness, consistency, effort, and presence that this team has adopted as their best basketball has emerged at just the right time.
7:15 PM ET, CBS. Let's see if tonight's still our night. Go Vols.