Vols Look to Repeat Dominant Defensive Performance to Open SEC Tournament Play
After the conclusion of the Mississippi State and Texas A&M game, the Vols now know who will be waiting for them in Bridgestone Arena when the play their first SEC Tournament game on Friday night. The Vols, who will be the last team to play their initial Tournament contest, will tip off against the Bulldogs at nine o’clock eastern time on Friday night. Mississippi State cruised to a convincing win over the Aggies, dominating a Texas A&M team that looked tired from a first-round game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday. State will square off against a Tennessee team coming off the most rest they have had since December. There are always concerns of rust when a team is coming off extended rust against a team that is already in rhythm, however, the Vols looked to benefit from the days off after a grinding close to the season. That season ending stretch saw the Vols play up and down against primarily tournament teams, and left them with a blowout loss, a pair of close, road losses stuffed to the brim with missed opportunities, and some absolutely dominant outings. Which Vols show up will be telling, though the Bulldogs look to be running like a well-oiled machine.
Ben Howland’s Bulldogs led from wire to wire against the Aggies, and frankly, the game was never in question. Perhaps what was more impressive was that State dominated the Aggies without pushing their horses too hard. Much like a racehorse jockey, it looked like Howland knew his team outclassed a gassed A&M squad that was playing with a short bench, so he never really gave them their head to run at full bore. He knew they could win convincingly without pouring everything out on the floor, which allowed them to conserve some energy for the matchup with Tennessee. For Howland, this was a bit of a gamble, but he bet on his team and they rewarded him for the risk. State was careful in their offense, took good shots, fed Quinndary Weatherspoon, and played solid defense, all without pushing players to expend all their energy. Had A&M surprised State, the strategy could have backfired, but Howland was confident his team could win while hoping to avoid looking as worn out as A&M when his team squared off with the fresh Vols. After an 80-54 routing of Texas A&M that never felt that close, Mississippi State looks to be firing on all cylinders with plenty left in the tank. After their last contest with Vols, they will certainly want to feel they have some momentum coming into the matchup.
The last time Mississippi State saw Tennessee, it was on the floor of Thompson Boling Arena on Senior Night. The Bulldogs walked right into roaring, Big Orange buzz-saw, and they became the victims of one of those dominant Tennessee performances mentioned above. The Vols hammered the Bulldogs in their last meeting to the tune of 71-54, a score that could have been much worse if Tennessee had wanted to push the matter. The Vols had a solid offensive night against State but were not as efficient as they have been for much of the season. Some of this could be contributed to the length, size, and solid defense that State plays, while some of the blame fell to foul trouble for Grant Williams, open shots just not falling, and some poor decisions by Tennessee with the basketball. Still, Tennessee got enough points to win convincingly, and while the offense had room for improvement, it would have been hard for the Tennessee defense to play much better. The Vols imposed their will against State when the Bulldogs had the ball, playing aggressive, swarming defense, clogging passing lanes, swatting shots, and grabbing steals. Weatherspoon, who averaged twenty points per game in SEC play, was limited to just seven, largely disrupted by Admiral Schofield. The Vols racked up a season high in steals with a dozen, rebounded well, and made life miserable for the Bulldogs when trying to score. Tennessee is unlikely to dominate State on such a level on a neutral floor, but if the Vols play similar defense to the first meeting, the final result will likely be the same.
For Tennessee, everything starts and stops with their defense. Weatherspoon is capable of taking a game over, but he has struggled against the Vols thanks to the defenders they have been able to throw at him as well as the energy they force him to expend on defense. Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield got off to hot starts on Senior Night the last time these two teams played, and, especially defensively, they will both need strong starts again if Tennessee wants to advance in the SEC Tournament. Offensively, the Vols want to improve their efficiency over their last matchup, and nothing will contribute to that like keeping Grant Williams out of foul trouble. Tennessee has an advantage down low with the Back-to-Back SEC Player of the Year, and the Vols have been at their best all season when they run through Williams consistently. State relies on their wings to score and their big men to rebound and play defense, but once he came in during the second half, Williams showed that as an area the Vols could exploit offensively. The other key to improving the offense is going to be Guard Play.
It is Tournament time, which means that Guard Play comes to the fore, so often what elevates a team to championships or sees them fall short. The Vols have All SEC players in Jordan Bone and Schofield, though Schofield is more a chess piece that Rick Barnes can move all over. Bone gives Tennessee a ball handler that can do it all at a high level, though he struggled at times against the Bulldogs the last time out. If Bone can score the ball better, something that is likely given his last game against State, that is already a major advantage for Tennessee. Add into that equation that Jordan Bowden has turned in solid performances his last two times out, and the guards are looking far more dangerous to State. The remaining cog for Tennessee at the guard spot is Lamonte Turner, who has been in a terrible shooting slump for the last three weeks, while also struggling on defense. If Turner can get back into his groove and play defense at the level he is accustomed to, he will be an asset to the Vols. If, however, his struggles continue, do not be surprised to see Barnes opt for Yves Pons to help counter State’s length. Whatever combination the Vols put on the floor, Barnes will be stressing taking care of the basketball and limiting the uncharacteristic turnovers that have kept opponents in games at times.
Tennessee has been a bit up and down as they finished regular season play, but this is a team that the Vols have had success against. The Bulldogs are a dangerous team and a lock for the NCAA Tournament, and Ben Howland has visions of an upset and a run to the SEC Tournament Finals. Tennessee cannot take State for granted, though that doesn’t seem to be a typical issue in this team’s psychology. Tennessee has dominated State once this season, and make no mistake, if they come out with a defensive performance on par with their first meeting, they will dominate the Bulldogs again. How the Vols handle Weatherspoon will be perhaps the key to this game, along with seeing if Kyle Alexander can serve as the anchor and pivot point of the Tennessee defense again. The Vols have not cut down the nets as SEC Tournament Champions in forty years, and this week in Nashville they are the favorite to do just that. A rematch with a good, capable Mississippi State team is the first step on that road, and Tennessee will have to be ready to play a tough, hard fought game to advance. That said, it is March, and every game from here on will be hard fought with enormous pressure. For these Vols, the entire season has led to these two tournaments. Tennessee has risen to high expectations all season long, and now it is time to see if they can rise to them again and make more history.