Tennessee is fully into the March mindset. The Vols came into the biggest month of college basketball knowing that they could afford no more slip ups. Every game that the Vols would play after the calendar flipped over was going to have significant consequences, and Tennessee would have to give their best effort each time out. First was a massive rematch with the Kentucky Wildcats, which saw the Vols rise to the occasion in a huge way, manhandling the ‘Cats in Thompson Boling Arena. The beat down of Big Blue meant that Tennessee controlled their own destiny in a quest to repeat with at least a share of the SEC Regular Season Title. However, achieving that goal meant that Tennessee would have to take care of business in their final two games. Mississippi State represented the next hurdle for the Vols as they came into Knoxville on Senior Night. The Vols wanted to send a special class of seniors out the right way, they wanted to win to keep dreams of an SEC Title and NCAA Tournament one seed alive, and they wanted to build off the momentum of their last two wins. For their second game that mattered in March, the Vols didn’t just win, they dominated.
Mississippi State should be a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, and in the middle of the season they were ranked as high as number twelve in the nation. Quinndary Weatherspoon is one of the best players in the SEC, maybe in the country, averaging twenty points per game in conference play. The Bulldogs have another pair of guard averaging double figures for the season besides Weatherspoon, and big, long forwards that excel at crashing the boards and closing down the lane on defense. The Bulldogs can explode on offense, are solid shooting threes, have a trio of wings that can drive and finish, and play very good team defense, especially where forcing steals are concerned. State came into tonight knowing that a win over Tennessee would cement an NCAA Tournament birth for them, as well as put them in a position to obtain the coveted double-bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament. Coming off the huge victory against Kentucky and playing their third game in a week, the Vols looked to be ripe to suffer a hangover and fall into a trap game against a good team with everything to play for. Aside from it being Senior Day in Knoxville and the Vols playing to go undefeated at home, the scenario had shaken out about as well as State could have hoped. Someone just forgot to give Tennessee the memo.
Rick Barnes’ team came out and turned in their third excellent defensive performance of the season. As good as the Vols played on the defensive end against Kentucky, they may have been even better against Mississippi State. One of the reasons that Tennessee was so dominant on defense is that one member of that special senior class had his best game in a month. Kyle Alexander came out in his final performance in Thompson Boling Arena and played exactly the role that this team needs him to if they want to keep winning this March. Alexander blocked four shots, while contesting and altering countless others on the night. He stayed out of foul trouble and made life miserable for anyone in Maroon that tried to come into the low post. Alexander served as the anchor for Tennessee’s smothering, aggressive defense, playing the rim protector and enforcer anytime State attempted a drive. The big Canadian was a force to be reckoned with on defense in his final home game, but he set the tone early for his team by fulfilling the other duty Tennessee needs him to excel at. Alexander pulled down the first rebound of the contest, on the way to grabbing ten, his first time securing double digit boards for the Vols in almost a month. Dominating the glass and defensively, Alexander did his job well, and even managed to chip in six points thanks to his hustle running the floor. If Kyle Alexander has shaken out of his funk, this Tennessee team is infinitely more dangerous, especially when they play defense and hustle all over the floor like they did against State.
It is hard to overstate just how good Tennessee’s defense has been over the last three games. The Vols simply contested everything that State tried to do at every position on the floor, and they did it for the entire game. The Vols limited Weatherspoon to just seven points in the game, often with Admiral Schofield taking him when State had the ball. Tennessee made sure that nothing was easy or routine for the Bulldogs on offense. The Vols assaulted the passing lanes all game long, coming up with their season high in steals with twelve. While Kyle Alexander may have hosted the block party, several other players got in on the act as Tennessee closed the game with eight rejections. All season, the Vols had seemed to be lacking the intensity on the defensive end of the floor and seemed to have an Achille’s Heel for giving up three-pointers. Some of that was due to Tennessee having a baffling run of drawing teams having season-best nights shooting the basketball, but some was due to struggles on defense and on the glass. In their last few games, Tennessee has crashed the boards, defended the three, and smothered opponents. If Tennessee plays defense to the level they have the last three games, the fact is that they can beat anyone in America, even on a night when the offense isn’t as efficient as normal.
While the Vols didn’t struggle on offense, they weren’t as efficient as they have been for much of the season. Some of that should be credited to Mississippi State being a solid defensive team, some to Grant Williams picking up two early fouls limiting him to just seven first half minutes, and some to the continued taking and missing of too many threes. Still, the Vols found enough offense to soundly put away the Bulldogs, even with continued shooting struggles of several key players. Tennessee’s leading scorer was Admiral Schofield. For a young man that bleeds Tennessee Orange, it was only fitting that the Admiral lead the Vols again. With a game high eighteen, Admiral scored the first bucket of the game, hit from three, and also did work on the block for Tennessee. While the other have of Tennessee’s Peanut Butter and Jelly combination was limited in the first half by foul trouble, Grant Williams had a solid second half, ending an, “Off Night,” with fourteen points and ten boards. Jordan Bone, who was playing on a completely different level against Kentucky, looked like a mere mortal against the Bulldogs, albeit a mortal that can still be an elite point guard. Bone stuffed the stat sheet with five points, six assists, four rebounds, a pair of steals, only two turnovers, and excellent on ball defense. Bone perhaps exemplified what makes this Tennessee team so dangerous, in that even on a night he was one of seven from the floor, zero of four from three, he did so many other things well to help his team that he still impacted the game. Bone pushed the tempo for Tennessee in transition, leading breaks off the Tennessee steals that lead to easy baskets for his teammates. Lamonte Turner had another night of offensive struggles, missing all his three point looks and totaling only four points. Much like Turner against Ole Miss, Jordan Bowden didn’t exactly shake out of his shooting slump, but he did turn in a double-digit performance with twelve points while also playing good defense off the bench. To put into perspective home impressive Tennessee was tonight, Bowden, Bone, and Turner went one for twelve from three, again, and the Vols won by nearly twenty over an NCAA Tournament team.
The Vols completed a perfect season at home for the first time in over a decade, played elite defense again, and won convincingly in a game where they will see multiple opportunities to improve offensive efficiency to their accustomed levels. The Vols sent their four seniors out in style with an emphatic, quality win fueled by defense that will make the rest of the nation take notice. The Vols are in March, every game matters, and a win Saturday at Auburn will secure the first back to back SEC Regular Season Titles in school history. There is pressure in ever game left on Tennessee’s schedule, with significant ramifications for every win and loss. The Vols are two games into March, where every game matters, and after two opportunities, they have risen to the occasion with two of their most dominating performances of the season. If this continues, the nylon that the Vols encounter from here on could be in peril, starting with the nets in Auburn Arena. Time to get ready for the matchup with the Tigers, and that includes making sure the equipment staff packs the ladders.