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Tennessee at Mississippi State Preview

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The Vols open SEC play on the road at what could be the league's easiest target.

BRAINS!
BRAINS!
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee logo
8-4
RPI: 64
KenPom: 93
January 7, 2015
Tipoff:
9:00 p.m. ET | The Hump - Starkville, MS
Television: SEC Network
Live Video: Watch ESPN
Live Audio: Vol Network

7-6
RPI: 222
KenPom: 194

The SEC scheduling up in the non-conference and taking care of most of the business it should have taken care of means there are very few "bad losses" potentially out there.  It's still quite volatile in early January, but right now 12 of the league's 14 teams are in the RPI Top 135 as conference play opens, and that includes the Gators at the bottom of that list at 134, which I would expect to change in their favor.  Bruce Pearl's Auburn squad currently sits at 117.  The only two potential toe stubs:  Missouri at 180, and Mississippi State at 222, the Vols' opening opponent tonight.

Let's start with the most optimistic ideas and work back to reality from there.  I think Tennessee needs to finish above .500 in league play (at least 10-8) to be in the bubble conversation heading to the SEC Tournament. This may actually seem easier than it sounds since last year's Sweet 16 team went 11-7 in the SEC, but remember, the league appears to be much deeper this year.  RPI Forecast projects Tennessee to go 7-11 in SEC play this year, but they project a 10-8 league record to give the Vols an RPI around 60 headed to the SEC Tournament, which would be enough to have them on the bubble.

Again, a mandatory word about RPI:  we're well aware it isn't the best way to measure a college basketball team.  But as long as the selection committee continues to value it, we will continue to monitor it.  Before last March, since expansion to 68 teams in the field, no major conference team with a Top 50 RPI had ever been left out.  Last year Missouri (49) and Minnesota (50) got cut at the wire.  Perhaps the committee is beginning to value it less, which is a good thing.  But they have rewarded Top 50ish major conference teams with incredible consistency.

The NCAA Tournament is the dream.  But making the NIT would still be an incredible accomplishment for Donnie Tyndall's year one Vols.  You never know about the size of the NIT field because regular season conference champions who don't win their conference tournaments and don't earn an NCAA at-large do earn an automatic bid to the NIT.  So it's impossible to say exactly what kind of record or RPI it would take for Tennessee to get in there.  Last year four SEC teams made the NIT:

  • Missouri - 22-11 (9-9) - RPI 49
  • Georgia - 19-13 (12-6) - RPI 74
  • Arkansas - 21-11 (10-8) - RPI 77
  • LSU - 19-13 (9-9) - RPI 83
So as you can see, it's a much tighter window than just finishing above .500 overall, the old criteria back in Buzz Peterson's days.  No SEC team has made the NIT with a sub-.500 league record since Ole Miss in 2011 at 7-9 and 20-13 overall.  So getting at or above .500 in the SEC is an excellent goal for Donnie Tyndall's first team, which could carry an excellent consolation prize with the NIT even if it's not enough to get on the dance floor.

Tennessee won all the games it was supposed to win in the non-conference and picked up two key home wins over Kansas State and Butler, giving itself a chance to dream.  But it is certainly not good enough to overlook anyone in the SEC, where there will be no easy nights.  It's always been true, but this season will especially become a one game at a time affair, where every win is huge.  Even against the worst team in the league, which is exactly where the Vols start.

What did Mississippi State do differently against Florida State than they did in their previous seven games, which included six losses and a 19 point beating from McNeese State?  The Seminoles turned the ball over 19 times, and the Bulldogs went 12 of 13 at the free throw line, including six of six in the final 37 seconds to keep FSU at bay.  The postgame is full of talk of the ol' sense of urgency and backs to the wall and all the things coaches of struggling teams like to hold so tight when they finally win one.  Obviously, Bulldog fans will hope this was some kind of corner turn.  We shall see.

Three thoughts for the conference opener:

  1. Mississippi State is the worst three-point shooting team in the SEC. This is exceptionally good news for Tennessee, which has the worst three-point defense in the SEC.  The Vols allow opponents to shoot 39.1% from the arc, and teams get 41.7% of their points from the three ball against Tennessee, the highest percentage allowed in college basketball.  The flip side, of course, is the Vols allow the fewest percentage of points from the two ball (34.8%) in the nation.  Mississippi State shoots 31.9% from the arc.  Junior Fred Thomas is the team's leading shooter, and he hits just 33.3%.  They don't take very many, averaging just 13 attempts per game.  But since their 5-0 start they've shot over 40% from the arc just once, going 8 of 15 in the win over Jacksonville.  Tennessee should be able to play its zone without being exceptionally worried about the open threes that can be found against it.
  2. Mississippi State is the most turnover-prone team in the SEC. This is also exceptionally good news for Tennessee, which is 32nd nationally and third in the SEC in creating turnovers, and best in the league in steals.  The Vols get a steal on 13% of opponent possessions and force a turnover on 23.6% of opponent possessions.  Mississippi State turns it over 23.7% of the time.  Again, Tennessee should be able to do its thing with the press and zone without fear of exploitation.
  3. The Haves and the Have Nots in the post. Mississippi State gets 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds from 6'7" Roquez Johnson, and 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds from 6'9" 260 lbs Gavin Ware.  Those two join Fred Thomas as the team's double figure scorers.  Tennessee could now be without Jabari McGhee for the rest of the season, with a redshirt looking like the most likely option.  We're going to be making this point about post players all year.  The Vols have nine scholarship players, and 6'10" Tariq Owens is by far getting the fewest minutes (7.0 per night, appearing in 9 of 12 games).  This puts huge pressure on and/or presents an opportunity for Willie Carmichael, who is improving and played one of his better games of the year against ETSU.  But the Bulldogs (and most of the SEC) will present stiffer challenges in the post on both ends of the floor.
There is a larger point here to be made about Tennessee's minutes.  Josh Richardson is playing 35.2 minutes a night.  That would be the most since C.J. Watson's freshman year in 2003 (35.8).  No Vol has played more than 34 minutes a game under Bruce Pearl or Cuonzo Martin.  Neil Watson played around 32 minutes a night for Donnie Tyndall during his two years at Southern Miss.  You have to go back to Morehead State, where Kenneth Faried played 34.7 minutes and three others played 30+ a night to find something like this.

Right now Kevin Punter gets 30.3 minutes and Armani Moore plays 29.9.  Those two and Richardson are Tennessee's backbone, accounting for 55.7% of Tennessee's points, all averaging double figures.  But entering into the two-a-week SEC grind with no breaks and no free nights, how Tyndall manages the rotation and how bodies hold up will be critical.  Can Richardson, who has improved with greater consistency than any Tennessee player I can remember, keep putting up these kind of numbers throughout SEC play?  His 16.5 points per game are fourth best in the league coming in.  Can he hold up?  Can Carmichael carve out significant contributions in the post?  How often will the Vols just put Armani Moore and Derek Reese at the four and five spots and hope for the best?

There are lots of questions still for this team, rolling nine and only nine deep into SEC play.  We'll get more answers in Starkville tonight, the first of 18 stops for a team that's given themselves a chance to control their own fate this season, writing their own story in the midst of distractions and low expectations.  The Vols are young, thin, and so far very competitive.  I would expect nothing less as league play begins tonight.

It's a late start, 9:00 PM ET on the SEC Network.  Go Vols.