We're still riding high from last night's comeback, but an even greater challenge with even greater rewards awaits tonight.
As we said coming into this week, I think Tennessee needs at least one more win to get in the NIT picture, while two wins and a Sunday loss to Kentucky should all but guarantee it. The size of the at-large field is still up in the air: there were no conference tourney finals yesterday and none today, leaving us with still five automatic qualifiers so far as low-major regular season champions who were bounced in their conference tournament and will not earn an NCAA at-large bid. The worst way to experience championship week is being on either bubble and needing all the favorites to win, and we've played it this way four years in a row now, three with the NCAAs and now the NIT. That means tonight you need to pull for the one seed in a bunch of semifinal games:
- MEAC: North Carolina Central (semis vs Delaware State, 6:00 PM, ESPN3)
- Southland: Stephen F. Austin (semis vs Northwestern State, 6:00 PM, ESPN3)
- Conference USA: Louisiana Tech (semis vs UAB, 6:30 PM, CBS Sports Network)
- MAC: Central Michigan (semis vs Toledo, 6:30 PM, ESPN3)
- Big Sky: Eastern Washington (semis vs Sacramento State, 7:30 PM)
- WAC: New Mexico State (semis vs CSU Bakersfield, 9:00 PM)
- Big West: UC Davis (semis vs Hawaii, 9:30 PM, ESPN3)
- SWAC: Texas Southern (semis vs Prairie View A&M, 9:30 PM)
But I'd much rather win.
Round Three, Day Two
The last time I typed something like, "Despite their clear talent advantage, tonight's opponent is actually a better match-up for Tennessee than most teams in the SEC," the Vols got destroyed at home by LSU. So let's not make too many assumptions here. But obviously we do know the Vols beat the Razorbacks in Knoxville 74-69 on January 13 in a game the Vols never trailed after the first two minutes and led by as much as 15 in the second half and 11 with three minutes to play, before an Arkansas shooting spree and a bad foul gave the Razorbacks a chance to tie it with five seconds left, ultimately missing three free throws. Two weeks later in Fayetteville the Vols and Hogs stayed within five points of each other after a 7-0 Arkansas run opened the game, with the Razorbacks winning after a Robert Hubbs tying three rimmed out with three seconds left.
Hubbs is the constant here. He's scored 15+ points only four times this year: at Georgia when Josh Richardson was ice cold, last night against Vanderbilt, and both times against Arkansas. The first time he was 6 of 7 for 16 points in just 28 minutes. The second time he was 6 of 11 for 15 points in 31 minutes. File this away for the future:
Josh Richardson talking about Robert Hubbs reminds me of what Jordan McRae used to say about Richardson: http://t.co/upe8416DTg— Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward) March 13, 2015
Tennessee's offense, which can struggle so mightily at times, just seems to really love playing Arkansas' pace. The Vols shot 50.9% from the floor and 46.2% from the arc in the first game, both their third best numbers in conference play. The three ball didn't drop the second time (5 of 14), but the Vols still shot 43.6% from the floor in Fayetteville.
The Vols can also maximize their defensive strategy against Arkansas: 11 steals in the first meeting, nine in the second. High steal numbers are one of the key stats in big Tennessee victories: the Vols average seven steals per game but got 12 against Kansas State, 10 against Butler, 11 against Arkansas, 11 at LSU, and nine last night including a bunch in the final minutes.
Arkansas, of course, will counter with Bobby Portis inside. The Vols haven't stopped him and neither has the rest of the league; the SEC Player of the Year had 17 and 11 in Knoxville, and 17 and 8 in Fayetteville. He's going to score. Arkansas is going to score. Much of tonight will depend on Tennessee's ability to take away some of those chances with steals, and their ability to continue to convert on the other end.
These have been best-players-make-plays games for Tennessee: Josh Richardson, Armani Moore, Robert Hubbs, and Kevin Punter have combined to score 112 of Tennessee's 138 points in these two games. The Vols will need all four and then some again tonight in a game that should present opportunities to score and even bigger ones to keep this season alive.
Win or lose, I expect another great effort and another entertaining game. 7:00 PM, SEC Network. Go Vols.