I am really not even going to bother discussing Thursday night's game here. Up next is the Tennessee Volunteers (13-7, 4-3 in SEC play), who are coming off one of their best performances of the season against Ole Miss. The Vols have one of the best two-man post tandems in the country, and when combined with great height across the board, it's no surprise that they have been a very physical team that is extremely good at rebounding the basketball. Coach Cuonzo Martin has not been able to live up to the level that Bruce Pearl established with the Vols, but he has seen some good success. This year's team is probably his best yet, and the Vols look, to me at least, like an NCAA Tournament team.
Tennessee's strength lies in the frontcourt, but they are, without question, led by their Senior G Jordan McRae (18.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.0 BPG). McRae is an all-around very good college basketball player. He shoots pretty well (43.5% FG%, 37.4% 3P%, 80.0% FT%) and uses his size (6'6) in a very effective manner on both defense and rebounding. But it's his presence on the court that really makes the biggest difference for this team. He isn't really good at any one category, but he is good at nearly everything. That's why the team flows through him, and why he averages 13.5 FGA per game. Joining him in the backcourt is a pair of experienced guards and a bevy of underclassmen. Junior G Josh Richardson (8.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG) is a very good scorer. Richardson shoots 49.3% from the field, 41.5% from three, and 80.6% from the line. Truth be told, I don't know why he doesn't get more opportunities to score, but that could be why he is so efficient. Senior G Antonio Barton (7.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.9 APG) is a solid, dependable player. He shoots decently well (40.6 FG%, 35.2% 3P%), but he is a bad free throw shooter (59.0%). He isn't much of a defender, but he does know the system well enough. He doesn't light it up with assists, but he doesn't turn the ball over either. Tennessee only has six guys who have played in all 20 games; the last one being Freshman G Darius Thompson (3.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.1 SPG). Thompson has a lot of potential and plays big minutes off of the bench for the Vols. He doesn't shoot often, but if he has the ball inside the three point line he is dangerous (63.6% 2P%, 20.0% 3P%). Thompson has adapted to Martin's system well though, and he is a very good defender. Tennessee plays another three guys, but they don't see many minutes. Sophomore G Derek Reese (3.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 0.7 BPG) is 6'8 and a very good rebounder for a guard. Senior D'Montre Edwards (2.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG) is a fantastic defender (89.9 defensive rating), and Sophomore G Armani Moore (2.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.8 BPG) is another big guard at 6'6.
As I alluded to earlier in the preview, Tennessee has two very good true post players. Senior F Jeronne Maymon (11.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG,1.2 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.4 BPG) is a talented scorer (52.7% FG%) and an excellent rebounder. He is very physical and a tough matchup for any opposing post player. Junior F Jarnell Stokes (13.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.9 BPG) is a beast, straight up. Stokes has always had a ton of potential, and was highly recruited out of high school, but he never could put it all together. Well, that's a thing of the past. Stokes averages basically a double-double, which is fantastic for a collegiate player, but he also averages about a steal and a block a game. He is very good on both sides of the court, though he's been known to be streaky. But if he's on, look out. These two guys dominate minutes down low, as Tennessee doesn't have many viable backups. Freshman F A.J. Davis (1.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG) and 6'10 Junior C Rawane Ndiaye (1.1 PPG, 1.1 RPG) both play, but they don't make much of an impact. They really only get playing time if the starters are in foul trouble or in need of a quick break. The Vols will use more of their tall guards if they are in need of depth.
What To Watch For
1. Anthony Grant's Job Status. Obviously this one game isn't going to make or break Grant's current status, but this has obviously become the biggest storyline from the 2013-14 Alabama basketball season. Fans are getting extremely restless, and many have just totally checked out. However, I keep hearing that Grant's not going anywhere. I hate to speculate, but his contract seems to be something that the athletic department doesn't want to cross. Basically, they don't want to pay a basketball coach a bunch of money to leave. I really hope that isn't the reason. If they truly think Grant is the guy, that's one thing. But to refuse to let him go because of his buyout, at a time when Alabama can easily afford to pay for his buyout, shows me that the athletic department is totally fine with having a mediocre basketball team.
2. How the Team Responds. Losing to Auburn in the way that we did was terrible. Don't think the players don't feel the same way. The reaction from a lot of fans seems to be that it's whatever, this season is toast anyway. If the players have that same attitude, this game could get ugly.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Don't get Destroyed on the Glass. Alabama had been playing really well in this regard. Then the Tide got out-rebounded by seven against Auburn. If Alabama hits the glass like that again, it will be a long night. Tennessee is very good at rebounding. They have great height at every position, and Maymon and Stokes are much better rebounders than anyone on our roster. If Alabama can hang around in the rebounding margin, they have a chance.
2. Draw Contact. This point is big for two reasons. First, as I have said multiple times now, Tennessee has great length. They play very good defense because it's just harder to score on someone when they are bigger than you. And Tennessee is bigger than Alabama. The Tide will need to try and draw contact and get free looks from the free throw line. Secondly, the Vols have struggled whenever Stokes and Maymon are in foul trouble. They aren't very deep down low, and there is a serious dropoff in talent. The key to beating Tennessee is getting those two guys off the court.
3. Force Medium Range Shots. The Vols like to score their points in three ways. They first like to get the ball inside to one of the big fellas. Second, they try to get dribble penetration and drive to the lane, especially with McRae. Finally, if the look around the basket is not there, then they kick it out for a three. Alabama needs to disrupt their offensive rhythm. Swarm them on the inside, and make sure they can't get an open look from outside.
I have to be honest, this could get ugly. Tennessee is a superior basketball team, and they have built some good momentum after their easy win over fellow SEC bubble brethren Ole Miss. Alabama is in the opposite situation. That doesn't bode well for the Tide. The game will tip-off at 8:00 pm CST and will be televised by ESPN2.