It belongs in a museum.
So, look. This is a year when hyperbole is available on a regular basis for Tennessee. Jordan Bowden’s dunk at Vanderbilt is one of the best I’ve ever seen by a Tennessee player. And it came at a crucial moment, with the Vols down five with under four to play.
But this thing last night was a masterpiece.
- As Lamonte Turner pointed out postgame, Schofield jumped off his right foot and dunked right-handed. I didn’t even notice that in the carnage.
- The perfect timing of, “Building ready to exploOOOOOOODE!” on commentary.
- The perfect follow-up of total silence from the announce crew, which is so hard to do. Kudos to those guys for not being bigger than the moment itself.
- The baseline ref’s extra body language in calling the blocking foul.
- Schofield’s wrestling heel walkaway.
Also, a credit to the victim, freshman Robert Woodard, for trying to take that charge. Defensive effort should always be applauded in moments like this, in a big game the Bulldogs were on the verge of watching slip away. That kid tried to make a play. And his feet weren’t far from making it happen. That’s the risk required: sometimes you’re the hero, and sometimes you’re on the tracks when the train’s coming through.
Tennessee’s train, by the way, was incredibly efficient last night. Late fouls put the Vols on the line 15 times for the night, but UT’s first free throw came with 10:53 left in the game. But it felt more weird than wrong: the game had great flow with few fouls on either side, and Tennessee was getting the shots they wanted.
On the night, the Vols had 66 field goal attempts, fourth-most in regulation on the season. And only 11 of them were threes, second-fewest on the season.
After taking Auburn’s bait in the regular season finale, the Vols imposed their will on a good Mississippi State team for the second time in ten days. Obviously Schofield (20 points on 9-of-12) and Williams (16 on 8-of-17) were terrific. But getting not just Jordan Bone, but Lamonte Turner active inside the arc was critical.
For Turner, it wasn’t just the assists (eight, with Bone’s nine). Lamonte is an incredibly efficient scorer inside the arc: 35-of-58 (60.3%) in league play, eighth-best in the conference. Tennessee’s guards created in ways that sucked in the defense, and one of the biggest beneficiaries was Kyle Alexander: 16 points and seven offensive rebounds.
It’s not rocket science, but Tennessee’s offense has been so good all year in so many ways, it’s easy to forget what brings out their very best. Last night was good, old-fashioned basketball: guards penetrate and distribute, big men clean it up, let your two best players take the most shots.
None of that will come as easy against Kentucky.
We Could Get Used To This
The Vols find themselves playing the weekend in the SEC Tournament for just the sixth time since 1991. But as it’s now also the sixth time since 2008, perhaps we can start to put some of these old ghosts to bed.
This will also be the third weekend meeting between Tennessee and Kentucky of the decade. In 2010 on Saturday, the Vols were down six with nine minutes to play, but lost by 29 (and then both teams made the Elite Eight). Last year on Sunday, the Vols turned back a 17-point Kentucky lead in the first half to take the lead briefly in the second, and pulled back with one on a Jordan Bone shot with 1:26 to play. But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished off an incredible afternoon (29 points and 7 rebounds) down the stretch, and Kentucky won by five.
This year the regular season meeting in Rupp Arena was the highest-ranked Tennessee-Kentucky game ever, the one in Knoxville perhaps the best performance by the Vols all season. But this one feels like it has the most at stake.
Virginia and Gonzaga are both already down this week; the Cavs should still be a No. 1 seed, and Gonzaga should still be headed to Anaheim at No. 1 or No. 2. Duke’s narrow win over North Carolina makes things more complicated than the alternative for the selection committee; a Florida State victory in the ACC finals tonight would only help the winner of the Vols and Wildcats. But right now, both Tennessee and Kentucky are ahead of North Carolina in NET, and the Tar Heels now have six losses to Tennessee’s four and Kentucky’s five.
The door feels rightfully open for the winner of Tennessee and Kentucky to earn a No. 1 seed, with Kansas City the most likely destination. But I don’t think anything is off the table at this point; if Duke falls to Florida State and the Vols win the SEC Tournament, there’s a scenario where Tennessee could go to Louisville as the No. 1 seed.
The Cats remain uncomplicated: 24-0 when shooting at least 28% from three, 3-5 when they don’t. Free throws have been the biggest disparity between these two teams this year: Kentucky is 42-of-62 (67.7%) in our two meetings, Tennessee 23-of-32 (71.9%). Tennessee doesn’t have to have it to win – the Vols (in)famously shot zero free throws in the second half against the Cats in Knoxville and won by 19 – and aren’t built to have everything go through the free throw line anyway, as we saw last night. The biggest thing Tennessee can do is defend their butts off, again. Kentucky made 14 shots in Knoxville. This time they’ll have Reid Travis back in the mix. But if Tennessee is going to beat Kentucky to earn a No. 1 seed – and if Tennessee is going to advance deep into March – it will be their defense that makes the difference.
Tennessee’s program, largely because of this team and its coaching staff, has played itself into an opportunity like this. We’ve earned the right to be here. Now they’ll have to earn the right to advance. And it’s no surprise to find Kentucky on the other side of the equation once more.
The Vols and Cats will go approximately 20 minutes after the conclusion of Florida and Auburn, which tips at 1:00 PM ET. A No. 1 seed and a chance to win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979 are on the table. This is March.