KNOXVILLE — Two Tennessee basketball fans were overheard in the hallway of Thompson-Boling Arena during halftime of the Vols’ game against NC State on Wednesday night. The home team was trailing at the time, 37-20.
First fan: “Boy, it doesn’t look good does it?”
Second fan: “No, but at least it won’t be a late night.”
Those fans didn’t have to be Nostradamus to figure out that a 17-point deficit was going to be hard to overcome, not the way Tennessee was playing. And sure enough, with about five minutes to play and the Vols trailing 52-45, the exodus of fans began. In their defense, save for a brief rally that cut the deficit to five points twice in the final eight minutes and change, an NC State win never seemed in doubt.
When State’s T.J. Warren drained a jumper with two minutes to play, putting his team safely up by 11 points, fans began streaming out of the arena, like Walmart shoppers headed for a cheap HD TV on Black Friday.
Those fans are well aware of what Tennessee’s eventual 65-58 loss to a so-so team that only a month ago lost to NC Central on its home court meant—the Vols are running out of time.
This was a blow, a broadside hit to their hopes of earning an NCAA tournament bid. To be fair, there is recovery room, but it’s never a good idea to put too much pressure on the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule. It didn’t work the last two years, when Tennessee struggled at times in November and March only to post second- and fifth-place finishes in the league.
All that gained the Vols was a couple of trips to the NIT, both of which ended quickly with home-court losses.
The remaining non-conference schedule offers little help, unless Morehead State suddenly picks up 100 spots in the RPI and Tusculum College suddenly becomes a Division I power conference team. Why play Tusculum, a D-II team, at all, let alone in January? The game won’t even count in RPI computations.
The Dec. 30 Virginia game is the Vols’ only remaining chance to bag a decent non-con win, and the Cavaliers won’t be easy. Virginia is a better team than NC State and gave the Vols problems in Charlottesville last season.
How has a preseason Top 25 team repeated the pattern of the last two seasons? A quick look at the numbers tells a lot.
• Tennessee isn’t shooting well enough from 3-point range—30 percent after a 3-of-24 effort against the Wolfpack—to keep teams from clogging the paint and suffocating Jarnell Stokes and employing zones and/or junk defenses. Remember UTEP’s triangle and two?.
• Defense, supposedly the Vols’ calling card, has let them down. So far they’re allowing their opponents to make almost 45 percent of their shots and an absurd 37 percent of their 3-point tries. Before the NC State game, Tennessee was 13th in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense. Yes, that’s second to last.
How can the Vols regroup? Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than “taking pride in shooting the ball,” as coach Cuonzo Martin suggested about some of his players in his post-NC State press conference. Offense needs to be ramped up, and the Vols have to start guarding people.
Here are some suggestions:
• Run baby, run, and press, baby press. Tennessee doesn’t have a ton of jump shooters, but it does have a ton of run-jump athletes, only eight of whom got off the bench against the Wolfpack. It’s time for the Vols to use whatever strengths they have and dictate tempo rather than have it dictated to them.
Some wise basketball fan might counter that new point guard Antonio Barton has been battling leg and hand ailments, and he has. But Barton’s not a true point anyway. Why not install freshman Darius Thompson as the starter and get moving? Thompson is an excellent straight-ahead passer and he turns the ball over only every couple of weeks. Seriously. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.4-1, off the charts for anyone, let alone a freshman.
Barton, when he’s well, would serve this team better as a starter at two guard.
• Clear out space for Stokes to operate before he sues the program for non support. Maybe that means resorting to a four-out, one-in lineup, alternating Stokes and Jeronne Maymon in the post. But it definitely means putting Stokes on one side of the floor by himself, giving him the ball and letting him go to work.
He’s not going to be able to shoot over even middling centers that have length—NC State 7-footer Jordan Vandenberg, who’s averaged 9.3 minutes per game in his career and freshman BeeJay Anya, who weighs 325 pounds, blocked nine shots between them on Wednesday night, not all against Stokes, but they did give him problems. But Stokes can utilize spacing, giving him angles to the basket. He can’t suddenly grow four inches, but he’s stronger and quicker than most post players he’ll encounter and can bull his way around them.
• Run Jordan McRae off screen after screen after screen. Give this man some help. Ball screens won’t cut it; good as he is offensively, he’s not an effective decision maker coming off a ball screen. But give him some screening action where he can get a second’s worth of a break from a defender and he can rise and make shots. And McRae is a monster in transition.
• Taking pride in shooting the ball won’t fix poor mechanics and an inability to get space from a defender. But taking pride in defense, that can work. To take pride in defense is to exert energy. For a team supposedly steeped in the Purdue philosophy and tradition of bone-crushing man-to-man, Tennessee has been a sieve so far this season.
It’s not too late, far from it. But opposing coaches are watching tape. And they see that the Vols aren’t adjusting to zones or gimmick defenses or double-teaming Stokes. Or maybe they can’t adjust. Maybe this team has too many long-armed athletes and not enough pure jump shooters.
As mentioned earlier, only eight players saw action against NC State. Several others who are burning scholarships sat on the bench. Are they not good enough to help, or can the skills they do have be used for the common good?
Tennessee has to regain the swagger it had during the Bruce Pearl era. Pearl ruined a good thing when he lied to the NCAA over a minor rules violation, and there’s no condoning that. But the Vols always competed at home, and they were always an aggressive road team.
Post Pearl, that hasn’t been the case consistently enough.