Tennessee…escaped? Is “escaped” the word we want to use for Wednesday night? Furman held the Vols to 37.1% from the floor and 5-of-20 from the arc; nine missed free throws didn’t help. But Tennessee’s defense was again present and accounted for: Devin Sibley scored 22 points on 16 shots, but no other Paladin had double figures and Furman shot just 39.7% as a team. The Vols were +14 in rebounding and, even when shots weren’t falling, continued to share the ball well with an assist on 17 of 23 made baskets. And, this time, a final minute that got a little too fast and loose broke Tennessee’s way.
The result: a 66-61 win, moving the Vols to 8-2 on the year. After the pre-Atlantis games with Presbyterian and High Point, Rick Barnes put three solid regional mid-majors in Tennessee’s path in Mercer, Lipscomb, and Furman. Mercer was missing their best player in a 24-point UT win, but Tennessee was appropriately challenged by Lipscomb and pushed a little too far by Furman. But the home team prevailed every night.
This means Tennessee’s resume has no bad losses. The Vols will finish the regular season undefeated against non-major-conference opponents for the first time since 2010. About half of those losses the last seven years came to traditional mid-major powers. But getting through unscathed for the first time since Bruce Pearl’s next-to-last season is still an accomplishment, especially for a team originally projected to finish 13th in the SEC.
Tennessee Mid-Major Losses since 2010
|2016-17||Chattanooga, vs Gonzaga|
|2015-16||vs George Washington, at Butler, vs Gonzaga|
|2013-14||vs UTEP, at Wichita State|
|2011-12||vs Memphis, at Oakland, Austin Peay, at Charleston, at Memphis|
|2010-11||Oakland, at Charlotte, Charleston|
Somebody has to come in last in the SEC – more on that next week – but right now, each of the league’s 14 teams are in the Top 90 in KenPom. This is shaping up to be the best SEC of at least this decade, and the league appears cupcake-free for the first time in more than 15 years. Tennessee may still lose some games they shouldn’t, but there shouldn’t be any resume-crushing opportunities in the SEC.
But first: Wake Forest.
Hey, Danny Manning!
The former LA Clipper all-star spent a decade as a Kansas assistant, then got Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament in two years. This is his fourth year in Winston-Salem; after winning just seven ACC games in his first two years, Manning got Wake to 9-9 in league play last season. That got them a ticket to Dayton, where they lost to Kansas State in the First Four.
They lost John Collins to the first round of the draft, but returned guards Bryant Crawford (16.4 points and 4.9 assists) and Keyshawn Woods (15.8 points and 39% from the arc). But it did not go well for them at the start of this season: lost to Georgia Southern by two, lost to Liberty by 13, lost to Drake by three, beat Quinnipiac, then lost to Houston by five. Since then, the Demon Deacons have won six in a row. But Tennessee will be the best team Wake has faced, by far: only Houston (41) and Georgia Southern (97.6) have a projected RPI of better than 100 in their non-conference schedule.
Another hot-shooting foe
In 11 games, Tennessee will have faced four of the nation’s Top 20 offenses (via KenPom), and Arkansas will make five next weekend. Wake shoots 48.7% from the floor (49th nationally), 39% from the arc (54th), and 77% from the line (20th). But, again, consider the competition.
Despite their own competition, the Vols are 36th nationally in field goal percentage defense in giving up 39.1% per game. Tennessee is 18th in KenPom’s defensive ratings; Villanova (46%) and North Carolina (43.3%) remain the only teams to shoot better than 40% against Barnes’ squad. If that defense travels, the Vols can make Wake Forest less comfortable than they’ve been all season.
If the Vols want to stay in the Top 25 heading into conference play, they’ll need this win. This would also give Tennessee a second true road win, along with Georgia Tech, and virtually guarantee an NCAA Tournament bid if the Vols simply went .500 in SEC play. It would be a fitting bridge between a great start and a great opportunity in league play.
Saturday, 12:30 PM ET, ESPN2. Go Vols.