Jordan McRae led four scorers in double figures with 20 points and Jarnell Stokes added 18 points and 13 boards as No. 11 Tennessee overcame a horrendous start and a 12 point first half deficit to beat No. 11 Iowa in the final play-in game on Wednesday night, 78-65, in overtime.
The difference maker for the Vols was actually Josh Richardson, who finally sparked some life into Tennessee when he hit five straight shots in the second half. Richardson scored 13 of his 17 points in the final 15 minutes of regulation, a stretch when it looked like Iowa was getting ready to pull away. He also set up Antonio Barton for a three that gave the Vols the lead.
It was a huge win for head coach Cuonzo Martin, who has been under siege by Tennessee fans unhappy with the team’s performance. There was an online petition circulating to try and get Bruce Pearl hired again that accumulated 36,000 signatures. The angst of the good folks on Knoxville only grew worse when Pearl was hired by Auburn on Tuesday. Hopefully, this win can put some of that to rest.
Tennessee will advance to take on No. 6 UMass in the Round of 64, which is a game that the Vols can win. UMass has a ton of length and athleticism, but they don’t have the kind of bodies in the paint that Tennessee does. Contain star guard Chaz Williams, avoid turnovers and pound the ball into the paint and they’ll have a chance to play on Sunday.
Adam Woodbury led the way for Iowa with 16 points and eight boards as he hit Stokes with every post move that he had in his arsenal. Peter Jok added 10 points off the bench as well. Those two combined to shoot 12-for-16 from the floor. The rest of the Hawkeyes? They shot 28.6% from the field, which included a 3-for-15 night from Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa’s star guard. As a team, they missed their last eight shots and were outscored 14-1 in overtime, ending a season that saw Iowa go just 2-7 in games decided by five points or less and choke away a handful of big leads in marquee games.
Head coach Fran McCaffery got a solid dose of perspective on gameday, however. His son, Patrick, had surgery to remove a thyroid tumor in his neck. On the broadcast on TruTV, McCaffery said that the surgery was believed to be a success.
Florida coach Billy Donovan must have laid into his team at halftime. His Gators were losing to Tennessee by seven points, UF’s largest halftime deficit of the year, and his team was clearly not following the defensive gameplan he and coaching staff had put together for the semifinal contest. Over the next twenty minutes, though, UF, carefully heeding their second defensive tutorial, underwent a transformation, blowing up each of Tennessee’s offensive plays and holding the Vols to just one field goal for half of the second session. The close final score — 56-49 — isn’t indicative of how uncomfortable UF made Cuonzo Martin’s squad look.
During the initial half, UT was driving the ball at the Gators, getting easy looks at the basket and scoring 1.08 points per possession. The SEC tournament is now defined by tweaks made by its coaches, and after UT made five layups to start the second session, Donovan unleashed a man press that trapped the sidelines, a move which immediately forced a turnover. Donovan next turned his gaze to Jarnell Stokes; the UT big had scored four field goals, physically beasting the Gator frontcourt until Donovan instructed his team to double on the touch, a move which took away the Vols interior. Clearly flustered and unable to assist from the post, Stokes didn’t make another shot from the field.
The key, though, was Scottie Wilbekin’s defense on Jordan McRae. The wing was seven for 31 in the first two meetings, and since he takes the highest percentage of UT’s attempts, controlling McRae was crucial. He may have finished with 15 points, but Wilbekin managed to consistently have a hand impeding McRae’s vision, staying in front of the UT wing and forcing him to take off-balance shots. Even when Martin used Stokes as a distributor, letting the big flash to the elbow and hand-off to McRae, Antonio Barton, and Josh Richardson, the help supplied by the other four Gators turned each Vol away and forced them to retreat, reset, and then take a low-percentage shot.
Another impressive aspect of Donovan’s tweak was their man-to-man sagging the team displayed over the final twenty minutes. It further took away the paint, and when combined with UF’s help defense, UT’s scoring was locked down.
Recaps of this game will specifically mention the technical received by Jeronne Maymon and his subsequent ejection. Or they will focus on Florida’s overall offensive ineptitude (.91 PPP; Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith were a combined two of eight). But the real story is the changes UF made during their break and then the eventual ransacking of every single UT offensive possession.
The Gators’ second half defensive efficiency rate was .52 PPP, a whopping rate that simply underscores Florida’s dominance, which is why this team, even when they can’t find the basket, is a threat to take the national title.
Since losing to Texas A&M in overtime on February 27, Tennessee hasn’t trailed at all in five consecutive games. The fifth game was played in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, with the Volunteers handling South Carolina 59-44 to set up a semifinal matchup with No. 1 Florida. Jarnell Stokes scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead the way, with guard Jordan McRae adding 14 points.
While the opposition during this five-game run should be noted, with Missouri being the best team the Volunteers played during this stretch, Tennessee’s improved effort and execution on the defensive end should not be ignored. Tennessee allowed its opponent to shoot better than 40% from the field in just one of those five games (Mississippi State shot 42.9%), with South Carolina making just 27.1% of its attempts Friday afternoon.
Tennessee has the length and athleticism to keep teams out of lane, and should the opposition get inside the Volunteers do a good job of challenging those looks. South Carolina finished the game with 18 points in the paint but they couldn’t keep up with Tennessee, which scored 32 points with Stokes doing most of the damage.
How much has Tennessee improved defensively? That question will be answered Saturday, with their game against No. 1 Florida representing both a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity. SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin has run the show well for the Gators, who swept the regular season series. A key for Tennessee will be rebounding, as Florida grabbed nearly 44% of its missed shots in a 67-58 win on February 11 in Knoxville.
Tennessee has the look of an NCAA tournament team and they should hear their name called on Sunday, but there’s nothing wrong with making another statement (or two) along the way. After taking care of South Carolina, Cuonzo Martin’s team will have the opportunity to do so.
It wasn’t three weeks ago that we were all ready to write off Tennessee for good this season.
The Vols had just been pasted by a thoroughly average N.C. State at home, a second straight loss that dropped a team expected to compete for a top three finish in the SEC to 6-4 on the season. It wasn’t pretty in Knoxville, as concerns about Jeronne Maymon’s health and point guard play reared their ugly head.
This team had a front line made of up two plodding land warriors and lacked a playmaking leader that could handle the ball. They were going to end up being just another SEC team, a basketball team forgotten about at a football school.
But something funny has happened in the last 10 days. Someone lit a fire underneath the Vols.
In their last game before the New Year, Tennessee mollywhopped Virginia, winning 87-52 in Thompson-Boling Arena, and after laying siege to some poor, non-Division I program, the Vols whipped up on LSU in Baton Rouge on Tuesday night.
Might Cuonzo Martin’s club have turned the corner?
Before we start calling this team an SEC contender, let’s wait and see what they can do against the likes of Kentucky or Florida or Missouri, but for now, I think it’s safe to say that things are trending in the right direction.
What has changed?
For starters, Antonio Barton is finally shooting the ball well. He’s scored 14 points in three straight games and is shooting 11-for-18 from three during that stretched. And while Barton hasn’t developed into the playmaker Tennessee needed, Jordan McRae has done his best to step up of late. He’s averaging 5.0 assists in each of the last three games against Division I competition.
There are still limitations on this team. Their bigs are still on the small side. Maymon’s knees are still going to be a problem. Their point guard issues are not going to solve themselves.
But they not only picked up two wins they desperately needed, this group now has some confidence heading into the throes of league play.
This will be an interesting season for Jeronne Maymon. NCAA rule changes have made defense something of a dirty word this year, and the Tennessee big man happens to play for Cuonzo Martin. That presents a bit of a dilemma.
“It’s definitely very hard to please him on defense,” Maymon told NBCSports via phone. “He really doesn’t care too much about offense. He says some nights your shots will be falling and some nights they won’t, so defense is your consistency every night.”
Maymon is jonesing for consistency this season. He sat out 2012-13 to rehab a nagging knee injury, and he logged very few minutes early in his career as he transferred from Marquette to Tennessee. The Vols were also in turmoil, making the transition from charismatic Bruce Pearl – the coach who coaxed Maymon to Knoxville in the first place – to the more taciturn Martin.
Maymon tries to see the positives in the meandering road he took to this final collegiate season.
“I don’t have as much on-court experience as other seniors, but I’ll tell you I gained a lot of knowledge just being on the bench as far as slowing the game down and getting the mental part,” he said. “Most fifth-year seniors get that mental capacity for processing the game down, but I really grew quite a bit from sitting on the sidelines just watching the game, just picking my coaches’ brains and talking to my players. I think that really helped me.”
A healthy Maymon is the missing piece that makes Tennessee a legitimate contender for the SEC crown, which will be hotly contested by past national title winners Kentucky and Florida as well this season. The strategic and tactical advantages of having Maymon back in the frontcourt alongside last season’s All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes should have Vols fans salivating.
“He and Jarnell are two of the better rebounders in college basketball, two of the most physical guys,” Cuonzo Martin told NBCSports by phone. “You can play those two guys as your four and your five and they feed off of each other. But he’s also a guy with tremendous leadership skills. Jarnell missed him most last season, just having another guy who can control the glass on the back side and draw some of the double-teams. So now Jarnelle becomes a better player with Jeronne back, because he learned how to play without him.”
Martin isn’t taking any chances, either. He has his dominant frontcourt tandem work over their understudies whenever possible. “We try to separate those guys as much in practice as we can, get them going against other guys so those guys can get the experience of how physical the game is played,” Martin said.
The combination of Stokes and Maymon landed at No. 6 on our preseason list of the game’s top backcourts, but the ranking is a bit precarious. If injuries strike, the bench can be a bit thin on big men. Junior college transfer Rawane Ndaiye, nicknamed “Pops”, will see a fair amount of time off the bench. Ndaiye has earned the confidence of his teammates the hard way.
“In practice it’s a lot more chaotic than in games, because coach doesn’t call any fouls; he lets you play. So Pops has shown a lot of poise,” Maymon said. “Him banging up against me and Jarnell has really shown how much he can withstand, and he can play ball.”
Tennessee’s strength extends beyond the frontcourt as well this season; an absolute must in a league featuring the Harrisons, Scottie Wilbekin and hot-shooting Marshall Henderson, amongst other perimeter terrors. Martin will look to Antonio Barton, who traversed the state as a transfer from Memphis to UT, to take some pressure off the inside players.
“You’re talking about a guy who can make shots and push the basketball,” Martin said. “He’s been in big games before and made big shots; he’s a career 40% three-point shooter. Those things help.”
Toss Barton in the mix with 6-foot-6 senior Jordan McRae, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season, and talented freshman Darius Thompson, and you’ll see a pattern emerging. Grit and brawn on the inside, deadly accuracy on the perimeter. It’s the classic basketball yin-yang. If the Vols get lucky and keep everyone out of the trainer’s room, this could be a special season in Knoxville.
It’ll be special for Jeronne Maymon no matter what. He knows this is his last go-round, and he can’t wait to get on the floor in front of a regular-season crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“The first game in front of our fans, being able to step back and hear all that noise and see that Tennessee orange, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m back,” Maymon said. “I’ll probably be very nervous, probably miss a couple of layups maybe turn the ball over once or twice, but I’m pretty sure I can get my feet wet and get back.”
The undercurrent of bold-faced honesty in the Tennessee program these days is refreshing. Maymon can acknowledge his rust, his fear and his potential mistakes because his coach sets a clear standard: you can screw up and be forgiven as long as you own it and learn from it.
“The idea is to be perfect, but we always fall short of that,” Maymon said. “We might make some mistakes, but we know we’ll get that corrected as the year goes on. (Coach Martin) sets a standard. He doesn’t bend or waver on anything; once he puts his foot down, it’s set. That’s what keeps us players on balance. I really appreciate his consistency.”
Consistency is what this season will boil down to for the Vols. They start the season on the road against an always-dangerous Xavier team, and they’ll travel to face last year’s Final Four darling Wichita State as well. In the SEC, Maymon and company will battle big men like LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant III and Florida’s own terrible tandem of Will Yeguete and Patric Young. As if that weren’t bad enough, they have assigned dates with the uber-young and uber-talented Kentucky Wildcats to prepare for.
Maymon knows what’s coming, but he refuses to get caught up in the preps-to-pros hype.
“You can’t approach every game with the same mindset. You’ve got to kind of pick your poison with some teams, and some teams are better at one aspect of the game than others. I’m probably just more focused in on the night-in, night-out grind of each game.”
The grind: it’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of our preview lists, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Basketball has five positions, but the way that the sport has grown, particularly at the collegiate level, has produced hybrid players, unusual roster makeups and far too many teams with players that don’t fit into a typical positional category. Few teams actually field a traditional starting five, which is why CBT decided to make our positional rankings reflect that.
Off-guards are the term that we will be using for players that unquestionably play in the back court, yet spend most of their time off the ball. Some of these guys are spot up shooters, some of them are slashers and some of them are combo-guards that just so happens to share a back court with a a ball-dominating lead guard. Whatever the case, the bottom line is that they are all guards that play off the ball. Hence, off guards. Simple, right?
Here is our top 20:
1. Russ Smith (Louisville): Smith went from a wildly entertaining, wildly inefficient player as a sophomore to a guy that won KenPom’s Efficiency Player of the Year award as a junior. He’s a perfect fit for the system that Rick Pitino employs. He’s a terror as an on-ball defender and he’s impossible to keep out of the lane or to stop in transition. When he plays with a modicum of shot selection, he’s an all-american.
2. Gary Harris (Michigan State): We’ve written about it all summer long: the nation as yet to see the “real” Gary Harris, as he was a shell of himself as a freshman while battling a shoulder injury. Harris is more explosive than he gets credit for and could end up being the best player on title-contending Michigan State this season.
3. Tyler Haws (BYU): Haws came off of a two-year Mormon mission without missing a beat, averaging 21.7 points as a sophomore. The Cougars aren’t going to slow down their pace of play at all this season, so it should be fun to see what Haws can do with an offseason to work on more than just getting back into shape. He’s the best player in the country at moving without the ball.
4. Joe Harris (Virginia): Harris is the most underrated player in the ACC, having averaged 16.3 points as a junior for a Virginia team that played at as slow of a pace as anyone in the country. At 6-foot-6, Harris’ shooting ability makes him a nightmare to defend.
5. Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke): Due to the fact that he will be playing on a team that has plenty of perimeter depth and two other potential lottery picks (Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood), Sulaimon may not put up huge numbers this season. But don’t sleep on his talent.
6. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): The biggest issue with Kilpatrick heading into this season isn’t his ability to score; he averaged 17.0 points as a junior. It’s that he may not have much help in that department with this Cincy roster.
7. P.J. Hairston (North Carolina): It’s unclear when we will actually see Hairston take the court this season, but what’s undeniable is that the junior is a major talent. We’re going to go ahead and assume that whatever punishment he receives is minimal enough that it won’t hurt his season.
8. Jordan McRae (Tennessee): McRae is the leading scorer and the No. 1 perimeter threat for a Tennessee team that should be the third best team in the SEC. The senior averaged 15.7 points a season ago.
9. Aaron Harrison (Kentucky): The unheralded Harrison, Aaron has been drawing rave reviews from people that have watched Kentucky practice and play early on this season. His ability to shoot from the perimeter will be key to providing space inside for Kentucky’s massive front line.
10. Markel Brown (Oklahoma State): For all the hype that Marcus Smart gets, there were plenty of times last season where Brown carried the Pokes. The 15.3 points he averaged went a long way towards proving he’s more than just a dunker.
TEN MORE NAMES TO KNOW
11. Nik Stauskas (Michigan): One of the nation’s most lethal shooters, expect Stauskas to showcase his athleticism and driving ability more this year.
12. Wayne Selden (Kansas): Selden is a big, physical guard that attacks the rim. The freshman will be a perfect compliment to Andrew Wiggins on the wing.
13. C.J. Wilcox (Washington): He’s doesn’t get much publicity playing for a mediocre Washington team, but Wilcox can flat-out score.
14. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): We love Marshall. He’s entertaining and loves to shoot. But there’s more to basketball than being a gunner that averages 20.1 points.
15. Jordan Adams (UCLA): With all the hype surrounding Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, not many people noticed the outstanding season Adams had.
16. Travis Bader (Oakland): Bader may be the only guy that can get up as many threes in a game as Marshall Henderson. He’s 101 away from J.J. Redick’s career record.
17. Danuel House (Houston): The former top 25 recruit averaged 12.4 points as a freshman and will take over a bigger role with Joseph Young gone this year.
18. Keith Frazier (SMU): The McDonald’s all-american will be SMU’s go-to scorer this season.
19. Geron Johnson (Memphis): Johnson was a risky addition for Pastner, but he’s a talented athlete and a tenacious defender.
20. Nick Johnson (Arizona): Johnson was a highly-regarded recruit that hasn’t quite lived up to his hype just yet. Arizona will need him to be an effective perimeter scorer.