KNOXVILLE — Finally, the Tennessee basketball team that was a trendy preseason Top 25 pick has arrived.
In dismantling normally stingy Virginia, 87-52, on Monday night, the Vols (8-4) removed themselves farther and farther from that embarrassing home-court loss they suffered against NC State on Dec. 18 and appeared revved up for Southeastern Conference play.
Where to start on this one? How about this: The Cavaliers’ back-line defense, designed to eliminate high-percentage baskets, was shot to pieces by a first-half performance that bordered on scary. Tennessee shot 57.7 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from 3-point range. Virginia, the nation’s second-ranked defensive team going into the game, had allowed 0.84 points per possession on the season. In 20 minutes against the Vols, they surrendered nearly double that.
This was the same D that bottled up Tennessee to the tune of 38 points in a loss in Charlottesville last season. So what was the difference?
Obviously, the Vols made shots. But they made them because they put themselves in position to make them. Jarnell Stokes, hounded and double-teamed a year ago, was allowed to score moving toward the basket rather than trying to post up, a position from which length often bothers him. And the Vols’ guards—Jordan McRae, Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson—took advantage of the extra attention paid to Stokes and let fly with abandon from 3.
The preseason work Richardson put in on his shooting has paid dividends so far. Richardson, who shot less than 30 percent from 3 and was often left unguarded on the perimeter a year ago, scored a career-high 20 points on 4 of 4 3-point shooting. He’s now shooting 50 percent from behind the arc on the season.
McRae gave the NBA scouts in attendance something to think about with a well-balanced stat line: 21 points, five rebounds, five assists, zero turnovers, a blocked shot and two steals. He was 3 of 4 from 3 and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line.
And Barton, mired in a shooting slump brought on in part by leg and hand injuries, blasted his way out with 14 points, including 3 of 4 from 3. When he tossed in a buzzer-beater from just inside the half-court line to end the first half, it was apparent that it was the Vols’ night and the Cavaliers would be making a long, dreary trek back home.
"We were definitely hitting shots,” McRae said. “Everybody was on tonight. If we have games like that, we're almost impossible to beat. We just have to keep playing like this."
Tennessee fans who may have wondered how their team got derailed so badly against NC State have to like what happened against Virginia, a team that could best be described as deliberate. Instead of allowing the pace of the game to be dictated to them, the Vols dictated the pace. In a word, that pace was fast.
“We wanted to play where opportunities present themselves, take shots,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. “You have to be very aggressive and attack. In transition, if you have easy baskets, take them, if not, move the ball and run your offense. But against a team like that, that defends so well, the ball has to get from one side of the floor to the other.
“It can't be one pass and up, unless you're wide open. You have to move the ball.”
The Vols definitely moved the ball. They logged 18 assists and made just six turnovers. Shooters had the luxury of getting their feet set and their shoulders squared as Tennessee guards penetrated into the teeth of the defense and then rifled out passes to the perimeter.
"They certainly shot the ball well and they hit some tough shots, but they got some great open looks,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They had so much time to get in a rhythm. We've had our struggles offensively, but if we're going to struggle like that defensively, run into that many screens and be that slow to trap, that poor on ball screen coverage, then that can happen if they get hot.”
Tennessee’s 35-point margin of victory is its largest in Martin’s three seasons. And this was the second largest margin of defeat in Bennett’s time at Virginia. The 48 points the Cavs gave up in the first half where the most since 2010, a span of 118 games.
The Vols’ barrage took Virginia by surprise, to say the least.
"I think they were 30 or 31 percent from 3 [before the game],” Bennett said. “The way we play, if there's a guy we know can't shoot, maybe we'll be soft on him, but ball pressure is really important to us, and contested shots. Even on guys that aren't great statically, but we couldn't even get to the shots.
“We were over-helping on screens and were just a step behind in every way. It wasn't like we were daring them to shoot and we're shocked by that. They just took it to us in every way."