Big, big game tonight.
Cuonzo’s teams make a good living off of frustrating their opponents. When it happens, it can really happen: his second Tennessee team beat Kentucky by 30, his third beat Virginia by 35 and won five straight by 15+ points at the end of the regular season and the first round of the SEC Tournament. And they thrive at home: even last year, a 15-16 Missouri team beat Florida by 16 and Auburn by a dozen in CoMo.
So one of the most impressive things the 2019 Vols did came quietly: three days after opening SEC play with a 96-50 beat down of Georgia, Tennessee went to Mizzou. Cuonzo’s team did their thing: they held Grant Williams to four points on 1-of-8 shooting. It was his lowest point total of the year, and only one of three games when he didn’t hit double figures.
Then they took away Tennessee’s ball movement. The Vols finished with just 12 assists, tied for their lowest total all year in victory. Only LSU (10), Kentucky (11), and Auburn (11) held Tennessee to less, all Sweet 16 teams.
Missouri led by nine with seven minutes to play in the first half.
That’s how good the 2019 Vols were: when forced to go to Plan C on the road, they still dominated. When Grant was held in check and the offense couldn’t create good looks through good ball movement, it was Jordan Bowden (20 points) and Kyle Alexander (14 points, 17 rebounds) who got the job more than done.
This Missouri team is plenty good, and plenty capable of frustration. What’s this Tennessee team’s Plan C?
…and are we sure we’ve figured out their Plan A yet?
The answers to any plan will include, “Defense, obviously.” The Vols are currently in the Top 13 nationally in all four defensive factors. That’s, uh, pretty good.
Offensively, I think Plan A is still to run through John Fulkerson. Last year Fulky was one of the nation’s surest bets from inside the arc, and he got to the line as well. He’s still doing that, and currently 21-of-23 from the stripe this year. The raw numbers are different because everyone is playing fewer minutes this season. But if you need a bucket down the stretch, I think #10 is getting the ball.
We haven’t really had to see Plan B yet. When Cincinnati took a 53-51 lead with six minutes to play, it was defense first – they didn’t score for another 4.5 minutes – and Fulkerson doing the dirty work. He hit four straight free throws to put Tennessee back on top, then it was Yves Pons adding a jumper to push it out to two possessions. That part we know.
The new pieces remain fascinating, especially as they all seem so capable. Victor Bailey leads the team in scoring at 13.2 points per game, and any one of seven Vols seem capable of leading them in scoring on any given night. It’s a little early for this kind of fun, but right now the Vols have six players responsible for at least 10% of the team’s points, and Pons is just outside at 9.3%. Among our recent NCAA Tournament teams, only the 2006 Vols had six different players account for at least 10% of the team’s points; no one else had more than five. This bunch might get seven. We’ll see.
One of these plans feels like, “out-talent them.” Get your own shots, let the freshmen do their thing, etc. Missouri probably isn’t the one to find out if that’s good enough against. The things Tennessee does well – get high percentage shots, don’t turn it over, get offensive rebounds – it will take a particularly good defense and/or a particularly cold shooting night to fall short with. And Tennessee’s defense is so good, as we saw against Colorado and Cincinnati, option number two may not matter anyway.
But in a game like this, how much of Tennessee’s offense will still go through Fulkerson? And if Missouri takes away Plan A again, where will the Vols turn this time?
Lots of questions tonight, and plenty of intrigue and possibility in the answers. 9:00 PM ET, SEC Network.