During the course of a long college basketball season, any given team will play about as well as it’s capable in 20 games and play much worse than it’s capable in about five games. Counterbalancing those flameouts are the five games a team usually plays far better than expected.
Saturday was one of those days for Tennessee.
In administering a historic bashing to old rival Vanderbilt, the Vols once again left their fans shaking their heads. How could a team that beat the Commodores by 38 points, ACC regular-season champion Virginia by 35 points and posted double-digit wins on the road at LSU and Alabama lose twice to Texas A&M? How could Tennessee be on the NCAA tournament bubble?
A book could be written about this season’s incredible highs and inexplicable lows. Blame can be placed on coach Cuonzo Martina and his staff and the Vols themselves. But in March, the NCAA selection committee looks for only one thing. Is a team worthy of competing for the national championship?
The Tennessee team that pounded Vanderbilt on Saturday is worthy, but .
But, if the Vols want to make the NCAA field for the first time in three years and the first time in Martin’s sometimes-shaky tenure, two things have to happen.
One, senior guard Antonio Barton, the senior who transferred with Memphis to replace the departed Trae Golden, has to continue to live up to his Memphis accomplishments. In other words, he has to make shots. Barton, a 41-percent 3-point shooter in three seasons at Memphis, has struggled with his shot at times this season, and on Saturday Martin said in no uncertain terms that Barton’s work ethic may not have been up to the task of getting himself out of his funk.
But recently, Barton has been putting in the time, arriving at the Vols’ practice facility at 10 a.m. every day and getting up shots.
Martin, as Vol fans have come to know, doesn’t overly complicate things. A player is either willing to put in the time to get better, or he’s not. Barton made the commitment, and against Vanderbilt, he made 5 of 7 3-point shots and scored a season-high 21 points.
There can be no underestimating the importance of the 3-ball to this team. When the Vols have been able to make shots from behind the arc, thus also freeing Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon to go to work inside, we’ve seen lopsided victories, improbable victories. Against Virginia, LSU, Alabama and Vandy, the Vols made 38 of 74 3s. That’s 51 percent.
Many times this year, Stokes, Maymon and senior guard Jordan McRae have had to shoulder a heavy scoring load by themselves. Sometimes, the load has fallen on just Stokes and McRae. And a few times, McRae had been out there by himself.
It’s imperative, if the Vols want to play in the NCAA tournament, that Barton continues to shoot the ball well. Tennessee’s bench production has been minimal. Offense has to come from somewhere. Barton is the Vols’ best bet to provide it.
Now on to Tennessee’s second imperative. The Vols have to guard. Long-time observers of college basketball might have predicted that Tennessee was doomed after touting itself in the preseason as a “tougher breed.” Successful coaches will tell you that if you really are a tougher breed, you don’t have to tout it on posters and the cover of media guides. You just have to be tough.
In Martin’s world, toughness begins with defense. On Saturday, the Vols played it as well as they ever have in the history of their Thompson-Boling Arena. Vanderbilt’s 38 points are the fewest scored by a Tennessee opponent since the building opened in 1987. And Vandy hadn’t scored so little against the Vols since putting up 21 points in 1947.
Tennessee held Vandy to 22 percent shooting from the field and 20 percent from 3.
“They probably controlled our penetration a little bit better,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They probably did a better job just covering the ball. We weren’t able to turn the corner on it like we did at our place.”
This brings up the million-dollar question. When a team doesn’t exert itself on defense, does the blame lie with the coaches or the players? The answer: probably a little bit of both, but some questionable recruiting decisions have left Martin short on bench options. There’s no better way to get a player to play defense than to have the ability to take him out of a game and replace him with somebody who is willing to guard.
No one who has observed the Tennessee’s roller coaster ride of a season is ready to anoint it NCAA worthy. But in the next two weeks, if the Vols can come anywhere close to the defensive intensity they showed against Vanderbilt, and Barton’s shooting slump is behind him, the Big Dance awaits.