The path to cutting down the nets in Nashville and securing the first SEC Tournament Title in forty years for the Vols requires three victories for Tennessee. The first step in that process was an NCAA Tournament bound, twenty-three-win, Mississippi State team on Friday night in the Bridgestone Arena. For the third seeded Vols, an 83-76 victory represents a check mark in the box beside Step One. It also means that Tennessee advances to Step Two, which is circled by college basketball fans across the nation, a Semi Final contest and Round Three against the rival Kentucky Wildcats.
There were things that Tennessee could have done better tonight against the Bulldogs. Tennessee allowed State to sink too many threes, some of which were defended well, others were just shots that were well defended, contested, tough, and just seemed to keep falling anyway, something that seems to inexplicably keep happening to these Vols. There were a few opportunities for Tennessee to slam the door on State earlier in the game, but the Vols allowed a dangerous Bulldog team to continue to hang around for too long. Some of the Vols’ shooters seemed to struggle to hit shots, not on the level we saw for much of February, but several key players couldn’t get good looks to fall. Tennessee had guys in foul trouble, mainly Grant Williams, who actually ended up fouling out of the game. While they overcame it against State, they can’t afford to keep their big men, especially the best player in the conference, in foul trouble on the bench. These are all things that the Vols could have done better against Mississippi State, all things they can improve on going forward, but really, Tennessee turned in an impressive performance against a quality opponent to open SEC Tournament play.
The Vols saw success against the Bulldogs because the team made all the adjustments that have been missing from some of their up and down, late season performances. Rick Barnes has repeated for two seasons that the Vols are at their best when Kyle Alexander is playing well, and he is absolutely right. When Alexander is on for the Vols, grabbing boards, protecting the rim, altering shots, getting blocks, and getting some points on offense, Tennessee becomes a different animal to contend with. On the occasions that Alexander does all of that and logs serious scoring contributions on high efficiency offense, Tennessee can look almost unbeatable. After playing better in his last few games, Alexander logged his best game by far of the last two months with nine boards, three steals, two blocks, an assist, and sixteen huge points. Alexander’s numbers could have been even better, but he was on the bench and playing more conservatively late in the game with four fouls. Still, Alexander helped shoulder the load for the Vols in scoring down low, adding some huge buckets while Grant Williams sat with foul trouble. The Vols got the best effort Alexander has put out in some time, and if he can replicate that outing going forward, Tennessee is a different, even more dangerous animal.
Though he was slowed with foul trouble much of the second half, Williams still turned in another impressive performance with sixteen points of his own to go with four rebounds, a block, and a steal. Williams and Alexander teamed up to pound the Bulldogs bloody in the paint, where State simply couldn’t do anything with the duo of Volunteer big men. Frankly, had the fouls not been an issue, this game could have been far worse for State as Williams and Alexander were having their way. Another key to Tennessee’s success was that despite limited time due to fouls, the Vols ran through Grant Williams against the Bulldogs. Williams touched the ball early, often, and consistently throughout the game. He was fed regularly, impacted the game, and created opportunities for his teammates. The Vols are at their best pounding people in the low post, and Tennessee dominated in that area against the Bulldogs, scoring over half of their points in the paint. While many of those points came courtesy of Alexander and Williams, the Volunteer guards penetrated for their own shots in the paint and set the table for others.
The Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich that drives these Vols got sixteen points out of a foul hindered Peanut Butter, and as good as Williams was, he was perhaps the least impressive of the three components. Jordan Bone, the bread that holds the whole thing together, supporting the other ingredients, was masterful. The Nashville native came home to play in front of the same family and friends he starred in front of at Ensworth High School, and he gave them an incredible show. Bone was an assist shy of a double-double, turning in fourteen points, nine assists, four rebounds, one steal, and committing only one turnover. As good as his stat sheet appears, it doesn’t do justice to Bone’s performance. Bone played sound defense on a talented corps of guards for the Bulldogs but running the offense he was superb. He showed a knack for knowing just when to pour on a burst of his incredible speed, blowing by State defenders, off footing them with his speed, scoring himself, and creating chances for his teammates. The nine assists from Bone were littered with dime passes that highlighted incredible court vision and an understanding of the offense, splitting defenders, hitting teammates in perfect position, and giving them opportunities at easy points. That said, the excellent outing from Bone may have been surpassed by the show Admiral Schofield put on.
Jelly led the Vols in scoring again against the Bulldogs, pouring in twenty points including two for two from three, seven rebounds, and a block. Schofield also contributed a dunk that may have only counted for two points, but it had a much greater impact, more on that later. Admiral showed his range, taking advantage from deep thanks to opportunities created by Tennessee’s dominance down low, hitting with his excellent mid-range game, and contributing in the paint as well. Admiral was a presence in the post on both ends of the floors, challenging shots by State’s talented guards when they tried to penetrate, snatching rebounds when their shots bounced out, and by muscling up shots in the paint himself. Though Admiral hit some big shots in the contest, none were bigger than the dunk that topped ESPN’s Top Ten. Schofield unleashed a thunderous dunk with his left hand that left a trail of destruction in his wake, an arena roaring, and the Vols with a double-digit lead. What could be overlooked in all the noise following the slam was something far quieter, the sound of a heel crushing an Adam’s Apple. Schofield’s monster finish was Tennessee stomping on Mississippi State’s throat and closing out the game. The Vols had an opportunity to deliver the exact same blow late in the first half when what should have been a crushing dunk by Jordan Bowden came off the back iron and went out. State took advantage of the quick change and closed the gap on Tennessee. When Admiral was given the opportunity, there was no miss. He delivered the blow that broke State’s back, set Tennessee on fire, and closed the door on any hope of a Bulldog comeback, as though State kept it close, they never really threatened for the lead again in the contest. Grant Williams doing his best Fred Sanford impression on the bench was just icing on the cake.
The Vols dominated the paint, ran through their star big man, got a superb effort out of their center, logged brilliant play from their two All SEC guards, and slammed the door on an opponent when they got the (second) chance. That reads like a bullet list of things that ensure a Volunteer win, but two other components were added to this mix that should not go overlooked. Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner have struggled at times throughout February, though both have shown signs of shaking out of slumps. Bowden, like Alexander, looked like he did earlier in the season, a do everything sixth man that turned in ten points, five rebounds, an assist, and a block. He did it on a more efficient night shooting, going two of four from deep, three of eight overall, and hitting both of his foul shots. Bowden also turned in a solid defensive effort and helped his team on the boards, the kind of game that Tennessee needs from him if they want to keep winning. For Turner, the scoring wasn’t there as much with only five points, but the redshirt junior had eight assists, four steals, two rebounds, and a block. Again, the numbers don’t do justice to what Turner contributed. Shaking off recent struggles on both ends of the floor, Turner shot the ball dramatically less, passed the ball to get good opportunities for his teammates, and returned to his form as an elite on-ball defender. Turner harassed Bulldog players whenever they got the ball, forced steals, jumped passing lanes, and ensured that things were difficult on offense for Mississippi State if he was close by. Turner took a page from Admiral Schofield during his slump earlier this season and excelled all over the court for his team even when his shot wasn’t falling. Yves Pons and John Fulkerson each played ten minutes and contributed with stout defense.
Though there is tape for Rick Barnes to teach from in this game, things he will want to see his team improve, the Vols played the kind of game against Mississippi State that they need to play each outing from here on. When the Vols play like they did tonight, solid defense, good rebounding, dominating the paint, running through Grant, and having bench players fill valuable roles, they are exceptionally difficult to beat. The defense on the three-point line needs to improve, the fouls need to go down, and Tennessee has to take any early chances to close a game out, but they played to all of their strengths tonight to beat a very good Bulldog team with Grant Williams on the bench much of the second half. This is exactly the kind of effort Tennessee needs to put on the court if they want to take Round Three against Kentucky. The Vols were hammered in Lexington in their worst game of the year. The Cats were hammered in Knoxville in what was likely their worst game of the year. The third game will be on a neutral floor in the Bridgestone and the Cats will have big man Reid Travis back for this one, though he does not appear to be playing at one hundred percent coming off of a knee injury. Tennessee is on to Step Two in a quest to win the SEC, and while Big Blue likely represents the biggest obstacle in that path, Tennessee just played exactly the kind of game they need to beat the Cats. Beyond advancing to the SEC Title Game and winning the season series, this game will also likely secure a one seed in the NCAA Tournament for the winner. Both teams look primed to give their best shot. Tennessee knows where they need to improve, and they know how they need to play to beat the Wildcats. Tomorrow afternoon, the Vols begin their attempt to put a check mark beside Step Two.