#2 Michigan vs #11 Tenneessee: A Sweet 16 Preview

The Tennessee Volunteers have gone from the NCAA Tournament’s First Four all the way to the Sweet 16. Their impressive run has not only secured coach Cuonzo Martin’s job, it has also energized Rocky Top’s fan base. The Vols first dominated Iowa 78-65 in overtime. They followed that up with routs of UMASS and Mercer by scores of 86-67 and 83-63, respectively. Their next opponent, the Michigan, stand between Tennessee and their first trip to the Elite Eight since 2010. The Wolverines present a monumental task for the Volunteers. Just last year they reached the championship game before succumbing to the Louisville Cardinals. They have ranked among the best teams all season and their #2 seed is a reflection of that. In examining the match-up, there are some burning questions for the Vols,  whose answers will ultimately decides who advances to the Elite Eight tonight.

Can Michigan Stop Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon?

The play of Jarnell Stokes has been an absolute revelation for the Volunteers this tournament. He has recorded a double-double in each of Tennessee’s first three games and his rebounding has allowed the team to dominate the boards. This hasn’t been a sudden shift, as the Vols rank among college basketball’s leaders in offensive rebounding percentage. Michigan will certainly have its hands full with Stokes, especially if Jeronne Maymon rebounds from his (relatively) poor effort against Mercer. The dynamic duo of Stokes and Maymon have been the Vols 1-2 defensive tandem. The Wolverines woefully rank 303rd in rebounds per game. If they can’t reverse this trend, it will be a long night for Michigan.

Can Josh Richardson Maintain His Hot Streak?

Josh Richardson’s deadly shooting enabled the Vols to prevail in their last two games with ease. The junior guard’s  scoring average for the tournament is 19.3 and is coming off a career-high 26 points against Mercer. If Tennessee is to prevail against Michigan , another stellar outing is imperative. The classic NCAA Tournament maxim is that you should be playing your best in March. Richardson seems to be taking this to heart and his play has provided another scoring threat for the suddenly-formidable Volunteer attack. This attack is firing on all cylinders at the perfect time, with Richardson’s red-hot game elevating it even further.

Will The Vols Maintain Their Stifling Defense?

While the improvement of the offense has heartened Rocky Top’s faithful fans, the strength of the Vols has been their defense. Tennessee’s late-season surge has seen this impressive defense tighten the screws even further. The Vols have disrupted offenses to the point they they’ve only averaged 61.4 points per game and 41 percent shooting. Another strong outing is pivotal to Rocky Top’s success, as the Wolverines have been among the Big Ten’s leaders in these categories. Their attack has been spurred by Nik Stauskas and Glen Robinson III all season and will be key players for Michigan tonight. Stauskas promises to be a key focus for coach Martin’s game plan.

The anticipation has been building up for several days now and tonight all the trash talking and hype will reach its apex come tipoff at 7:15 P.M. The Volunteers have essentially been playing with house money the entire tournament, as it was uncertain whether Tennessee would even make the Big Dance. It’s important to note that the season has been a complete success regardless of tonight’s outcome. But if the Vols manage to pick off the Wolverines, let the party begin on Rocky Top.

(All stats courtesy of ESPN.com)

Edited by Will Lomas

Preview: Tennessee vs. Missouri, Must-Win Senior Day for Vols

Tennessee’s basketball team will play its biggest game of the season tomorrow. The Vols are on the NCAA tournament’s proverbial bubble for the third consecutive year under head coach Cuonzo Martin. They come into the game at 19-11 (10-7) and will take on the Missouri Tigers, who are 21-9 (9-8).

Saturday’s game is likely a make or break situation for the Vols’ tournament hopes. Missouri, also an NCAA tournament bubble team, knows that a road win over Tennessee will greatly increase their chances of making the field. Some view tomorrow’s game as a virtual “play-in” for the big dance. While winning the SEC tournament is always a sure ticket into the field, at-large teams like the Vols and Tigers need wins of this caliber to prevent a do-or-die situation.

An RPI win for either team tomorrow will be impressive, as both are lurking near the top 50 in the nation. Not only is tomorrow’s game a must-win for the Vols, it is also Senior Day. For a team led primarily by seniors, there is no question as to the game’s importance. Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, Antonio Barton, and D’Montre Edwards will all play their final game in Thompson-Boling Arena.

As if there wasn’t enough to play for, a win for Tennessee would also clinch a bye in next week’s SEC tournament, meaning the Vols wouldn’t have to play until Friday. Tennessee could climb as high as a number three seed for the conference tournament, depending on whether or not Georgia beats LSU.

Tennessee’s keys to a win Saturday are simple: shoot the ball well and stop Jabari Brown. The Vols hit only 40% of their shots in a 75-70 loss to Missouri earlier this season. Even worse, Tennessee was 4-21 from the three-point line. The Tigers’ Brown lit up the scoreboard for 24 points and also made a last-minute play to finish off the Vols.

If Tennessee can do these things well and limit turnovers, they will likely have an opportunity to pick up a much-needed win. This team has not played well with high stakes on the line in the past, but undoubtedly, they desperately seek to change that image. Tomorrow, the Vols can do just that. With the exception of Arkansas, no team in the SEC is playing as well as Tennessee right now, and Vol Nation hopes that trend continues.

Tip-off for Tennessee vs. Missouri is set for 4:00 p.m. (EST) and will be televised on ESPN.

Edited by Will Lomas

Martin, Vols Seeking NCAA Tournament Bid

As Selection Sunday approaches, the senior laden Tennessee Volunteers are seated firmly on the same bubble that has eluded them the last two seasons. In Head Coach Cuonzo Martin’s first two years at the helm, the Vols have been left out of the NCAA tournament and selected to play in the NIT tournament.

While it is a complement to receive an NIT bid, Vol Nation has been accustomed to seeing their team in the big dance. Tennessee made the NCAA tournament six years in a row before Martin’s arrival in Knoxville. In the past two seasons, Tennessee has finished just shy of an NCAA bid, actually being referred to as the first team out in ESPN’s “bracketology” by Joe Lundardi last season.

Now in his third season, Martin and his most talented Vols team desperately seek an NCAA bid, and it is more attainable than many fans would like to believe.

Lunardi currently has Tennessee (16-10, 7-6) in the NCAA tournament as a #11 seed, and receiving one of the last four byes. They have an RPI (ratings percentage index) of 51 and the eighth best strength of schedule in the nation.

In other words, Tennessee is currently the seventh to last team in the field, giving them a slight cushion. If the field were selected today, not only would the Vols be in on an at-large bid, they would also be able to avoid the “first four,” which are two play-in games that narrow the field of 68 teams down to 64.

CBS Sports “bracketologist” Jerry Palm also currently has Tennessee in the field as a #11 seed. However, Palm considers the Vols to be one of the last four in the field, thus projecting them to be in one of the play-in games. So, albeit as close as it is, Tennessee is considered to be in. 

However, there is a problem for the Vols. “Bracketology” does not include conference tournament upsets. Each conference tournament winner gets an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. In a perfect world where all the favorites won their conference tournament, at-large teams like Tennessee would be in the field.

Unfortunately, every season, a few bubble teams are knocked out because of this reason. For example, Saint Louis (24-2) is a heavy favorite to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. Yet, if they lose in the finals to George Mason (9-17), then George Mason gets an automatic bid, and Saint Louis becomes a highly attractive at-large team. In a situation like this, Saint Louis would bump Tennessee out of the field.

So, what exactly does Tennessee have to do to get in the NCAA tournament? To begin with, they need to win their next four games, which include back-to-back road trips against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, a home date with Vanderbilt, and a game at Auburn. None of these teams have an RPI better than 92 and the Vols simply can’t afford a loss to a team of that caliber.

That is, unless of course they beat Missouri at home on March 8th. Missouri has a current RPI of 36, and would provide a tremendous boost to a resume that already includes wins over Virginia, Xavier, and LSU. Tennessee also needs at least one win in the SEC tournament. Generally, a strong-finishing bubble team that can even out at 1-1 in the conference tournament will be in good standing.  

Every game is vital from this point forward, and while Tennessee can probably afford another loss, two losses before the SEC tournament would likely drop them out of the field. The Vols have a favorable schedule to finish strong, but March 8th is the date to circle. A Senior Day win over Missouri could be just what the doctor ordered for this senior laden team.

Edited by Will Lomas

Vols destroy Vanderbilt 76-38

The Tennessee Volunteers took down in-state rival Vanderbilt 76-38 on Saturday, in what was the most lopsided SEC game the season. Senior guard Antonio Barton led Tennessee and was the only double-digit scorer in the entire game with 21 points.

A special pre-game ceremony for former Tennessee basketball star Dale Ellis took place in Thompson-Boling Arena, as he had his number 14 jersey lifted to the rafters. He was able to speak to the team before the game and according to star forward Jarnell Stokes, said that this team beating Vanderbilt today would mean more to him than getting his jersey retired. The Vols obviously took this speech to heart because they dominated the Commodores from the opening tip until the final buzzer.

Senior guard Antonio Barton came out on fire, hitting one of his five three-pointers on the first possession, which ended up igniting an 14-4 run. Senior guard Jordan McRae also came out confident, scoring half of Tennessee’s first 14 points. Barton scored three three-pointers before the halfway point of the first half and Tennessee continued to run away with the contest as the lead reached 17 at the 7 minute mark.

Things just got worse for Vandy as the first-half progressed and the Vols just seemed to be hitting on all cylinders. Every player who saw minutes in the first half scored, Stokes was dominating inside the paint, the team was 7-12 from three-point range, and the defense was tight and forced eight turnovers by halftime, which saw the Vols up 41-18.

Tennessee has had a reputation of letting teams back into games after a dominating first half, but Saturday was a different case. Antonio Barton started off the second half just as he had the first half, with another three-pointer, which almost seemed to foreshadow that this half would be nothing different from the first. The Vols never even gave Vandy a chance to be optimistic, even though Jordan McRae fouled out, as the lead grew to 30 and hovered around that mark until the end of the game.

This game was obviously one of, if not, the best performance of the season for the Volunteers. When Head Coach Cuonzo Martin was asked about how his team played, he said, “Vanderbilt was hard to scout but our guys did a great job focusing in practice and in film sessions. This is one of our best games we have played along with Virginia and Ole Miss.” Martin said. “We did a better job defending. We played well on Odom and made getting the ball to him hard for them.” Rod Odom scored 26 points the first time the teams played on February 5th, but on Saturday he was only able to get up 7 total shots and finish with only 4 points.

Lead scorer Antonio Barton also echoed Coach Martin’s praise of focus in preparing for this week. “What was different about this week is that our focus was locked in, at practice and in the film room.” he said. “It’s coming down to crunch time and every game counts.” Barton said, and he played like he really meant it.

Barton’s season-high scoring performance was not a surprise to his teammates, especially to Jarnell Stokes. “I said after the Ole Miss game that Barton is the ‘X-factor’ for this season.” he told reporters. “When we play pick-up, he plays like he did today, so I told him to play like it was a pick-up game.”

Tennessee is right on the bubble for making the NCAA tournament. They are going to have to win their remaining games against Auburn and Missouri if they want to make the “big dance.” If the Vols can play as they did Saturday, they have a chance to do something special in the tournament. “I can’t help but pay attention to all the NCAA tournament talk. But at this point my mindset is to stress about each game at hand and not the tournament.” Stokes said. The Vols cannot afford to slip up against Auburn or Missouri and need to have all their focus on the games that need to be played in order to reach the goal of doing well in the tournament.

Edited by Zach Dennis