The Vols narrowly missed a second straight signature victory on Saturday, but there is still significant cause for optimism. Against what is currently the the 17th toughest schedule in the nation by RPI, Tennessee is 8-7 (1-2) with a number of near misses. In fact, KenPom's luck rating finds the Vols 336th of 351 teams (shout out to Vanderbilt in dead last). This is in part due to so many close losses, and in part a comment on opponents out-performing their own expectations against Tennessee. The Vols have been in the fight against almost everyone in a tougher-than-advertised schedule so far.
It shouldn't change much tonight. Georgia is 8-5 (1-2) and, other than the SEC opener at Florida in a 14 point loss, is also no stranger to the close call. The Dawgs lost by two in overtime to Chattanooga, by two to Kansas State, and by one at Ole Miss on Saturday. Against the Rebels, the Dawgs gave away a nine point halftime lead and a four point advantage with 40 seconds to play. Misery, company, etc.
As was the case against Florida, this should be a great offense/defense match-up. Tennessee is 45th in KenPom's offensive ratings. Eventually we'll reach a point in this season where we stop saying how amazing that is considering all the turnover, no Josh Richardson, no true point guard, no size, okay, maybe we won't reach that point. Georgia, meanwhile, is 31st in KenPom's defensive ratings. The Dawgs are holding the opposition to 36.8% from the floor, seventh best in the country. Ole Miss beat them shooting 36.2%, and Chattanooga's 43.5% in the season opener is the highest percentage they've allowed in a loss. They're just as good against the three ball, allowing just 28.8% this season.
This means you'll need to bring a strong defensive effort to beat them, which wasn't one of Tennessee's natural strengths but is certainly getting better. Texas A&M's strong offensive showing in the second half in Knoxville had much to do with Tennessee turning the ball over on the perimeter, leading to fast break advantages for the Aggies. It was an uncharacteristic performance for the Vols, whose stat sheet continues to be shockingly dominated by blocks and ball security. The good news for Tennessee, defensively and hopefully in general: there's hope the Vols can still get better. This week Rick Barnes specifically went after Robert Hubbs, saying, "If Robert Hubbs decides to play harder and make a commitment to his teammates, we'll win more games in this league this year than people think." Hubbs is Tennessee's second-leading scorer after a slow start in conference play for Armani Moore, but clearly the coaching staff thinks they can get more from the former five-star.
He'll be one to watch against the Dawgs, who are led by 6'8" sophomore Yante Maten at 16.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. The Vols have swarmed productive posts from Florida and Texas A&M, creating difficult shots without fouling. After dealing (and dealing relatively well) against so much size last week, it'll be interesting to watch Tennessee go against a more balanced team behind Maten, as Georgia's usual cast of characters is back in upperclassmen guards J.J. Frazier, Kenny Gaines, and Charles Mann.
The loss to A&M was a heartbreaker, but the Vols can get one back and get back to .500 with a win in Athens against a good Georgia team tonight. In what's quickly becoming a very competitive league, staying even against a tough early schedule would be a nice accomplishment and continue to kindle the hope that this team's best basketball is still in front of it.
7:00 PM, SEC Network. Go Vols.