If last night felt weird, that’s because it was:
- 33.3% from the field was Tennessee’s second-lowest shooting performance of the season.
- 60.7% from the free throw line was Tennessee’s second-worst performance of the season, barely beating a 6-of-10 night against LSU. Eleven missed free throws were a season high.
- Twenty offensive rebounds was a season high, by far. The Vols had 16 against Purdue and North Carolina (a good sign that the Vols can hang on the offensive glass when playing teams with tremendous size).
- Seventeen turnovers tied a season high (Wake Forest).
- Mississippi State had one assist. One. That’s unheard of, and is obviously a season high for Tennessee’s defense. The fewest assists for a previous opponent was six…also from Mississippi State.
- Eight blocked shots for Mississippi State is the most any team has scored against the Vols this year. The Bulldogs’ size again clearly affected Grant Williams, and this time Tennessee wasn’t nearly as clean in running the rest of their offense.
But…we won. And today’s game should be much more pleasing to the eye.
Way back on December 30, Tennessee played 36 of its best minutes of the year. The Vols led Arkansas 70-61 in Fayetteville with 3:53 to go. Twenty seconds later, Grant Williams picked up his fourth foul. And then, chaos.
Arkansas scored 61 points in the game’s first 36 minutes, then 34 points in the last four minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime. A frustrating component in several of Tennessee’s losses – a preventable turnover in the final minutes – really sparked the Arkansas rally: splashing a three, getting a steal, and getting a layup turned an eight point game into a one possession affair. The Vols still had a chance to win with 18 seconds left in regulation, but Jordan Bone only hit one of two free throws and the game went to overtime. Williams fouled out at the end of regulation and Admiral Schofield followed in the first minute of overtime. With Tennessee’s defense fundamentally altered by foul trouble, Arkansas exploded. Daryl Macon finished with 33 points, Jaylen Barford with 28.
Offensively, the Arkansas game was Tennessee’s best scoring performance from its guards: 21 from Jordan Bone, 17 from James Daniel, and 10 from Lamonte Turner. But that’s not Tennessee’s best basketball: we should see the Vols again try to play more through Williams and Schofield inside-out today.
As advertised, Arkansas has an incredibly efficient offense. The Razorbacks shoot 40.1% from the arc, 12th nationally. And they only turn it over on 15.2% of their possessions, 17th nationally, this despite playing the 28th-fastest pace in college basketball. Tennessee dictated the tempo for those first 36 minutes of the previous encounter, Arkansas for the last nine.
The Razorbacks struggle to keep teams off the glass because they want to get out and run, so offensive rebounds are there for the taking (Arkansas is 295th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage). They also foul a lot, 27th nationally, which means Tennessee needs to shoot better than the 69.2% they put up from the line in Fayetteville.
Tennessee’s objective is to stay physical in attacking the Arkansas defense, but do so at the pace they set instead of allowing Arkansas’ guards to turn this into a shootout. It worked really well until Grant Williams got his fourth foul last time. That first meeting also included 11 minutes from John Fulkerson and nine from Chris Darrington; if Rick Barnes sticks with the lineups he’s been using, it’ll be more Yves Pons and Derrick Walker today.
After a surprise run to the finals led by Allan Houston in 1991, Tennessee didn’t play on Saturday in the SEC Tournament from 1992-2007. Since then the Vols have seen Saturday in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014. But they’ve only seen Sunday once since 1991, in 2009. And the Vols still haven’t won this thing since 1979.
A lot of history, a potential three-game sweep of Kentucky, and the continued pursuit of Nashville is on the line today against Arkansas. This game should be much more fun to watch. Let’s hope the outcome is the same.
Alabama and Kentucky go at 1:00 PM ET, then the Vols and Razorbacks will follow. This is only the fourth time the Vols have been on ESPN this year. Have you heard we were picked 13th in the league?