Every year when the field is set there is one thing you can count on with March Madness, it will be exactly that — madness.
We saw a perfect example of that on Sunday afternoon, as the Vols bolted out to a phenomenal start taking a 49-28 lead into the halftime locker room. It brought a welcome feeling of comfort to the Tennessee players and fans alike who have had to endure some heart-palpitating games as of late. That feeling would disappear quickly as the Iowa Hawkeyes caught fire out of the halftime break.
In the blink of an eye, that 21 point lead turned into a tie game with just 2:39 left in the second half after Jordan Bohannon sank three free throws to pull the Hawkeyes even. When it was all said and done Vol Nation was able to let out a huge sigh of relief as Tennessee outscored Iowa 12-6 in bonus time to take the 2nd round match-up by a score of 83-77 in overtime.
It’s a well-known fact that anything can happen in college basketball when March rolls around and there is no lack of solid basketball teams still playing. The Sweet Sixteen produces another tough match-up for the Vols as they will meet Purdue in Louisville on Thursday in hopes of advancing to just their second Elite Eight in school history.
Purdue made easy work of Villanova on Saturday night, beating the Wildcats 87-61. If the Vols hope to dispose of the Boilermakers en route to the Elite Eight, they will need to play better than they did this past weekend. I believe there are three “musts” for Tennessee if they hope to move on in the NCAA tournament.
Contain Carsen Edwards
Slowing down the Big Ten’s leading scorer, Carsen Edwards, has been easier said than done for Purdue opponents all year long. The junior guard is not afraid to shoot the basketball as he took 656 shots this season with 347 of them coming from behind the arc. He averaged 23 points per contest in Big Ten play this season while shooting 39% from the field and 35% from three.
The Vols have been susceptible to the long ball throughout the season and even more so within the last month. With that being such a big part of Edwards’ game, Tennessee will need to make sure they are all over him defensively Thursday. It looks as if that duty will primarily fall on the shoulders of guard Lamonte Turner. Turner has been a solid defender in 2019 and has often taken on the role of defending dangerous, opposing guards for the Vols. Both Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden may also see some time defending the star Purdue guard. With Edwards being the heart of the Boilermakers and by far their most consistent scorer, I think this will be one of the most important factors on Thursday.
I think the three previously mentioned guys will do a solid job of slowing Edwards down, but if he gets hot the Vols could be in trouble. I’m not sure if Rick Barnes would actually do it, but I’ve said all year long that if the Vols really want to lock an opponent down, Yves Pons can defend just about anybody. With a lot of work to do to refine his raw skills, his athleticism and quickness are up there with just about anyone in the country and I think he could certainly defend the shifty Edwards and do a fine job of it if Barnes wants to put a bigger body on him.
Continue to Feed Grant Williams
Tennessee has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to having players the can score the basketball. The Vols are loaded with guys who can score both inside and from behind the three point line. However, throughout the season there have been many instances where the offense hits an abrupt lull and finds themselves unable to consistently score points. Not every time, but quite a few of those times this was the result of the Vols getting too “shot-happy” from outside. With so many good three point shooters, it’s easy to see why that style of play can be tempting. However, Tennessee is at its best when they feed the back-to-back SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.
The junior forward averaged just shy of 19 points per game while shooting a stellar 57% from the field. Williams can be an absolute nightmare for opposing teams when he gets in his groove. His ability to produce buckets when getting the ball in the post is tops in the conference and up there with the just about anyone in the NCAA. He’s also adept at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line where he shoots at an 83% clip. While not very tall, his wide frame and the height he gets on the turn around jump shot gives him the ability to shoot over many collegiate defenders from just a few feet from the basket. Another aspect of Williams’ game that has given defenders fits is his ability to drive to the basket when getting the ball at the elbow. Countless times that sequence has ended with the Vols getting three points the hard way.
The Vols have a high-powered offense that can score the ball and when Williams has it going, it opens the floor up for everyone else. Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, and Jordan Bone all see their efficiency and shooting improve when Williams is being productive and drawing the double teams that allow them open shots. As it has been for the last couple years and will be on Thursday, Tennessee will go as Grant Williams goes.
Finish the Game
Possibly the most apparent takeaway from last round’s match-up, the Vols must do a better job of finishing the game strong. The aforementioned offensive lull was a huge factor in why the Hawkeyes were able to creep back into the second round game. Iowa outscored Tennessee 39-18 on the way to tying the game up near the two minute mark in the second half and the Vols would only score 22 points the entire half.
You don’t have to go back too far to find another example of the Vols doing a dismal job of closing out a big game. Just two days prior to the Iowa game, the Vols let an overmatched Colgate squad come storming back from a double-digit half-time deficit to take a brief lead with ten minutes left in the game before the Raiders lost by just seven points in a game they were seventeen point dogs.
If Tennessee gets lackluster on defense and are unable to stay out of foul trouble again, they will have a tough time again down the stretch in what many believe will be a tight game. Neither Colgate or Iowa had a player near the caliber of Carsen Edwards. He is the kind of player that can turn those Tennessee offensive lulls from close wins to devastating losses.
Nonetheless, we should all be in for a treat on Thursday as the Volunteers look to get to their second Elite Eight in program history. If they are able to slow Edwards down, get Grant Williams the ball, and put the pedal to the metal in the second half then they will be looking to make history two days later as they play for a trip to Minneapolis to take part in their first ever final four. If not, they’ll be back in Knoxville enjoying the game from the couch with the rest of us. I think we can all agree, we want that trip to Minnesota.