There have been moments in the second half of each of the last two games where it seemed like the Vols were going to pick up another big win. I know during much of the Texas A&M game I was reconsidering UT's ceiling before the Aggies hit a late run to win. And as the Vols built a nine point lead in the first four minutes of the second half in Athens, we were allowed to drift back to that thought.
The awakening was rude. In news that won't surprise, Tennessee is 13th in conference play in three point percentage allowed, giving up a whopping 45.7% from the arc in this 1-3 start. The sample size is still small and I would contend the Vols have played one good and two really good teams in these first four games, but Tennessee is also struggling in areas where they excelled in the non-conference: 58 turnovers and 50 offensive rebounds allowed in four games. Add in Tennessee's own icy 27.8% from the arc, and we really could have been talking about a number of blowouts.
So now we come to what feels like the first important win to get of Rick Barnes' tenure. Several of the others were nice opportunities, and the Vols cashed in on Florida. But this is the first one where the momentum and narrative of the season comes to a bit of the crossroads, fittingly at the halfway point of the season with the Vols at 8-8.
Tennessee travels to Starkville to face the other Final Four off-season hire in the league, where Ben Howland has the Bulldogs playing better basketball despite an 0-3 start in league play. Considering they started with Texas A&M, at Arkansas, and at Kentucky, I'd imagine this is where most would've thought they'd be.
What's been surprising is the way they've competed. Texas A&M was fortunate to beat them 61-60. Kentucky was up 20 in the second half but MSU cut it to three in the final minutes, no small feat in Rupp. The Bulldogs are quietly making a move up the KenPom ladder, checking in at 113 as of Thursday night and clearly separating themselves there from Auburn and Missouri at the bottom of the league.
If Tennessee wants to stay out of the bottom of the league, this is a game they could use. 1-4 with Vanderbilt and South Carolina coming to Knoxville next week is, shall we say, not ideal. The Vols have been close to several pretty good wins in several pretty good performances. But losing four of the first five SEC games, going below .500 and still being o-fer away from Thompson-Boling would become the loudest voices in the conversation.
That conversation can change in a hurry in college basketball, however, and getting a win in Starkville would send us to the upcoming two game homestand with momentum. No one in this league appears to be good enough to just show up and beat the Vols this year, but it will just naturally be harder for Tennessee to compete in games against a more balanced league the further they fall behind in the standings and out of the relevant conversation. To a degree, we saw this happen at the tail end of last year.
To take a step back in the right direction (other than "shoot better!" and "stop giving up so many threes!") the Vols will have to stop another threat in the post. 6'9" Gavin Ware averages 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, and is flanked by freshman guard Malik Newman and ninth year senior Craig Sword. Mississippi State has been strong defending inside the arc, where they've given up just 41.4% in league play. But they are the only team worse than Tennessee at giving up threes in conference play at 45.9%, a truly unusual circumstance to be giving up a higher percentage from three than two through their first three SEC games.
I'm not sure Tennessee's best answer is to take more threes - thankfully that's Rick Barnes' job and not mine - but I'd be curious to see if/how the Vols adjust their defense to deal with three point shooting. Where it's come as a result of swarming the post and the ball being kicked out and around to an open man? Not sure how much of that problem is going to entirely go away on this team this year when the post has to be swarmed. Kyle Alexander will still be worth keeping an eye on, but he can't be the answer by himself. Down the stretch in several of these could-have-been games - Butler, Gonzaga, Georgia - the Vols just couldn't put together enough stops to get back in front. How much can that improve this season?
It's a big one to get for Rick Barnes and a team finding itself in a fight early in league play. 3:30 PM Saturday, SEC Network. Go Vols.