By: Eric Cain / @_Cainer
Things are good in Knoxville right now – at least for men’s hoops.
The Tennessee men’s basketball program ascended to the No. 1 ranking in both the Associated Press and Coaches Polls earlier this week for only the second time in school history. UT is riding a current 13-game win streak – good enough for third-best all-time in program history – and hasn’t lost a game inside Thompson-Boling Arena in 19-straight contests.
Rick Barnes’s bunch has a perfect record in Southeastern Conference play (6-0) and owns the league’s top point-scorer in Grant Williams (20.3 points/game). Senior Admiral Schofield (16.7 points/game) also ranks among the SEC top-five scorers while Jordan Bone (6.4 assists/game) is third in helpers.
The team’s lone loss came at the hands of a then second-ranked Kansas club in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament on November 23.
Coming into the season, Tennessee was picked second in the conference (Kentucky) and garnered national praise as a potential Final Four caliber team. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the level of play the unit will get out of every opponent on the schedule – especially inside the SEC slate.
It comes with the territory. Being the top-dog week in and week out fuels competition in others and after starting conference play in dominating fashion over Georgia and Missouri, Tennessee has been tested of late.
So far, so good. But it hasn’t been easy.
UT has been pushed to the limit its past two ballgames. If not for a controversial travel call on Alabama’s John Petty, the 30-point scorer could have ended it on the final possession. Four days later in Nashville, Tennessee needed a record-breaking performance out of Williams to escape Memorial Gymnasium and Vanderbilt. The Vols also benefited from a late flagrant foul.
Give credit where credit is due. Good teams find a way to win and Tennessee has done that twice in the span of a week.
Petty tallied 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting with six made three-pointers for the Crimson Tide on Saturday. The guard was dominant to start the second half, but late adjustments held him scoreless for nearly the final 10 minutes of the game. Jordan Bowden had a lot to do with that.
The Vols then erased a six-point deficit with 90 seconds remaining against the Commodores. Two clutch free throws from Williams paired with a turnover and another jumper by No. 2 set the table for Schofield to tie things up with 38 seconds remaining.
Williams scored 10 more points in the overtime period to lead Tennessee to an 88-83 victory.
Alabama (12-6, 3-3) and Vanderbilt (9-9, 0-6) aren’t raising eyebrows around the country and certainly won’t be in the top-half of teams Tennessee will face in conference season, but the type of effort displayed will be prevalent the rest of the way.
No doubt, this team has played like the best team in the country at times – but there’s also no doubt this team will need to play better to win meaningful games in late February (@KY, @LSU, @Ole Miss) and early March (KY, Mississippi State, @Auburn) before tournament season begins.
A couple of factors have led to UT’s close calls of late. For a unit that prides itself on defense, the Vols have surrendered 68 and 83 points in their last two outings while Vanderbilt shot six notches (50 percent) above its season average of 44 percent on the season.
Even in a game that was essentially a no-contest, Arkansas outscored Tennessee in the second half and managed a 47 percent clip by game’s end. In fact, the Vols has been outscored in the second half in each of the past three ballgames. Still, Barnes’s team is giving up a mere 67.5 points a game with a 38 percent clip against on the season – the latter being the best mark in the conference.
Where Williams has elevated his game in recent memory (43 points and 23-for-23 free throws @ Vandy), Knoxville’s other Bash Brother has struggled. The SEC’s fifth-leading scorer has combined to go 6-of-26 from the field for 24 points in games against Alabama and Vanderbilt while shooting 1-of-10 from long range in the process.
For a guy that has routinely made the clutch shot for this team the past calendar year, the slump should not keep up.
So, how does Tennessee continue to find a way to win despite not having its best night in the arena?
Free throws, rebounds and lock-down defense in crunch time are a few. Bone has been magnificent in running the offense and Lamonte Turner has come up with big shots when needed. Kyle Alexander and Schofield have commanded the boards and the former, along with Williams, have been blocking shots routinely. John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker have also provided good minutes off the bench, defensively.
Good teams find a way to win.
Fans shouldn’t expect Tennessee to roll through the rest of conference play with a 27-point margin of victory like it opened against Georgia, Missouri and Florida – just as fans shouldn’t expect the near heart attacks endured over the course of the past week in close games. What fans should expect every time the Volunteers take the floor – the opposing team’s best effort of the season.
Tennessee is the No. 1 team in the country and has a big orange bullseye on its back.