We knew Alabama made a living getting to the free throw line. But the Vols were not their normal foul-happy selves, drawing just 15 whistles all afternoon and putting Bama at the stripe just 12 times. We knew Alabama was not a very good three-point shooting team that loved to shoot them anyway. And the Vols played their zone and gave Bama the open looks it couldn't turn down. The Tide shot 6 of 22 from the arc, just 27.3%. Both of these things played right into Tennessee's hands; if you'd told me coming in Bama was going to shoot 12 free throws and 27.3% from the arc, I would've asked how much we won by.
What I was not prepared for, and maybe all of us should've been, was what Tennessee would look like on the offensive end when faced with an elite defensive team on the other end.
Alabama, according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, is the second best defensive team the Vols have played all year. The Tide are 33rd nationally in KenPom's adjusted defense ratings. When the Vols faced Butler, the best defensive team they've played all year, the difference was Kevin Punter. Josh Richardson had 20 against the Bulldogs and 17 today. But against Butler, Punter was 7 of 10 from the floor and finished with 18 points. No other Vol made more than two shots against Butler; no other Vol had to because Tennessee was that strong on the defensive end themselves.
Today Richardson was 6 of 13 from the floor. The rest of the team was 8 of 32.
You're going to hear a lot today, "Tennessee is what it is." The Vols don't have a non-freshman post option and Tariq Owens needs the weight room and the meal plan. Both will come. He played six minutes. Willie Carmichael was the only Vol in real foul trouble today, but his quick four left him with just 13 minutes.
That means the Vols played most of the day with Armani Moore and Derek Reese on the block. Those guys are really good at some things, but being a traditional post option that opens up the rest of your offense isn't one of them. So Alabama sat back in its zone and invited the Vols to beat them. Josh Richardson could. But no one else could follow. And when the Vols tried to beat the zone over the top with threes, the ball just didn't fall: 2 of 17 from the arc, 11.8%.
The end result: the hard-fought game Tennessee led 36-35 with 13:39 to play turned into a torturous rout. Alabama bled the Vols slowly, but certainly. The game was tied at the under 12, and Bama's lead was only five at the under eight. But eventually and unbelievably Alabama stretched an 18-0 run out over 13 minutes. Armani Moore's tip-in with 35 seconds to go officially stopped the run, but the Vols still leave with an 18 point loss and the lowest Tennessee point total in the history of Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tuesday against #23 Arkansas was always important, but you'd like to see this team bounce back from a historically bad offensive performance, even if they don't win. Today won't be the last time the Vols see a strong defensive team (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and of course Kentucky); Arkansas is many things, but they aren't that.
Tennessee isn't good enough to survive when Richardson gets no help or the three ball refuses to drop, even when they do the things defensively to give themselves a chance to win. Today was unfortunately ugly, in front of the biggest crowd of the year (just shy of 17,000) and the students for the first time this spring. Tuesday represents another opportunity, and a chance to shake the very bad vibes from today's performance. The goal for this team has to be to continue to improve; after today, there's plenty of room for that.