Both Tennessee and Virginia had something to prove entering Monday’s non-conference clash in Knoxville.
The Volunteers and Cavaliers were both seen as underachieving teams with a final chance at a solid non-conference win — and a momentum boost — heading into conference play.
After the way Tennessee came out and thoroughly dominated Virginia on Monday, they should be very pleased heading into SEC play. The Volunteers held Virginia to 32 percent shooting and 16 percent shooting from the three-point line as they cruised to an 87-52 win.
But while the Tennessee defense was obviously impressive, head coach Cuonzo Martin has to be excited about the balanced offensive effort that the Volunteers had against Virginia. Earlier on Monday, I broke down Tennessee’s reliance on its top three players — Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae — on offense and how the Volunteers had struggled to find scoring elsewhere against marquee opponents.
In its last two losses against high-major programs, Maymon, McRae and Stokes combined for 43 of Tennessee’s 61 points in a loss to Wichita State and followed that up the next game with 48 of the team’s 58 points in another loss to North Carolina State. No other player on Tennessee’s roster had more than six points in either game.
That changed dramatically on Monday.
Josh Richardson (20 points) got the Vols going early, as the junior had a 15-point first half in which he confidently knocked in jumpers and moved well without the ball. After going scoreless in losses to Wichita State and North Carolina State, senior Antonio Barton put up 14 points on 5-for-6 six and 3-for-4 from the three-point line.
Even with freshman reserve guards Robert Hubbs III and Darius Thompson not giving much of an offensive boost, Tennessee was able to easily control the game against Virginia because their offense among the starting lineup was so balanced and tough to defend.
McRae (21 points) and Stokes (20 points) continued their solid production, but with the added bonus of Richardson and Barton knocking down shots, they won comfortably and made a usually solid Virginia defense look awful.
I don’t expect Tennessee to shoot nearly as well as they did on Monday every game out, but even if Richardson and Barton miss a few of those shots, Tennessee has to be happy with how confidently and aggressively their starting five played on both ends of the floor.
Tennessee thoroughly outplayed an opponent that had something to prove — on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes — and Martin has to like that heading into the SEC.