Ben Howland’s second team started 3-2 with a 25-point loss to Central Florida and a 14-point home loss to Lehigh. It was easy to write them off. But they’re 9-3 since then with a two-point loss to ETSU, a 10-point setback to Alabama to open SEC play, and an 88-81 loss to Kentucky. A win at Arkansas last week made you pay attention, and the Bulldogs bookended it with victories over LSU and Texas A&M to go to 3-2 in league play.
Sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon leads the Bulldogs with 17.7 points per game and 45.2% from the arc. Their roster looks a lot like ours: nine freshmen and four sophomores, with senior guard I.J. Ready the only upperclassman in the rotation. They have been particularly good defending the three, allowing teams to shoot just 31.3% from the arc this year. As we know that isn’t a particular strength of Tennessee’s, but MSU’s perimeter defense won’t help.
What needs to start helping Tennessee again is the free throw line. A 13-of-24 performance at Ole Miss was out of character for a team shooting 74.3% for the season. But perhaps more importantly, the Vols must get better at defending without fouling. Tennessee has been whistled 140 times in six SEC games, leading the league with honor. Grant Williams leads the team as you might expect (3.1 per game), but Lamonte Turner and Shembari Phillips are close behind. Lew Evans averages 10.3 fouls per 40 minutes in league play. I’m not even mad, that’s impressive.
If the Vols get a little better at helping themselves, they should have every opportunity to beat Mississippi State at home. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to see this one come down to the wire and the Vols be the more poised team this time around, something we’ve really only seen against ETSU in victory. Tennessee’s other significant wins (Georgia Tech, at A&M, at Vandy) all featured big late leads via plenty of poise in the first 36 minutes. But there should be plenty more close games on this schedule, and we may need Tennessee’s freshmen to be better in the final minutes than Mississippi State’s.
Saturday, 6:00 PM ET, SEC Network.