What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Will at Rocky Top Talk, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Tennessee.
1) Tennessee had some struggles earlier this season, but it seems like they've really hit their stride lately -- they've won five of their last six and gave Florida a really tough battle in the SEC Tournament. What's turned around for the Vols recently and what's made them so dangerous?
There are a couple of interesting statistical benchmarks for Tennessee this year. The Vols average 44.7% from the floor but are 18-1 when shooting 43.9% or better. The Vols average 33.5% from three but are 17-2 when shooting 33.3% or better. The Vols average 12 assists per game and are 16-2 when getting at least that number. Those numbers correlate most strongly with point guard Antonio Barton's play, and Barton played really well at the close of the regular season.
But even when Barton isn't shooting the ball well, Tennessee also started playing defense with renewed intensity at the end of the regular season. Tennessee held Vanderbilt (22.4%) and Missouri (31.9%) to their lowest shooting percentages of the year, then held South Carolina (27.1%) to its second lowest percentage of the year and Florida to its second lowest point total (56) in the SEC Tournament. Cuonzo Martin preaches defense above all else, and when the Vols commit to it they way we've seen the last three weeks, they can compete with anyone and blow teams out when shots are falling. That's how the Vols were in it with Florida til the end despite scoring just 14 points in the second half.
2) Defensively, it looks like Tennessee has been pretty solid all season, but it's been even better lately -- they held four straight opponents under 40% shooting (and under 60 ppg) until the Florida game. What makes the Tennessee defense so tough? What have teams done to be effective against it?
Cuonzo is fond of saying you know something's gone really wrong if you see his teams playing zone. Tennessee plays an aggressive man-to-man style with lots of switching and communication, which can leave the Vols vulnerable if the effort and intensity doesn't show up. Because the Vols have such a great offensive rebounding presence with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee usually doesn't have to send anyone else to the glass and is able to play solid transition defense. Josh Richardson is Tennessee's primary defensive stopper - he held the SEC's two leading scorers to single digits in the final week of the regular season - but Jordan McRae has also stepped up his defensive game tremendously and is an incredible shot blocker. Armani Moore has one of the best verticals I've seen and is also an phenomenal shot blocker. The Vols are strong and physical inside and long on the perimeter. When Tennessee has been exposed defensively it usually comes through the point guard spot.
3) On the flipside, what does Tennessee do well on offense? What does Iowa need to focus on to slow Tennessee down on that side of the ball? From looking at the stats, it looks like Tennessee is not a very good three-point shooting team, but they get a lot offensive rebounds, make a lot of two-point buckets, and avoid turning the ball over too often. Is that about right?
Offensive rebounds are our bread-and-butter. Stokes and Maymon aren't that tall, but are incredibly strong with good hands, and Stokes is so well versed at handling double-teams now you almost have to triple-team him to be effective. At times this year and last Tennessee's offense primarily ran through Jordan McRae, who is a great scorer from almost anywhere on the floor. But Tennessee's best basketball comes when the offense runs through Stokes and then all five players get involved through ball movement off the double-team. A lot of UT's high volume three point numbers have come in blowouts where things got a little loose in the second half; McRae is a great shooter, Barton a streaky shooter, and Josh Richardson is a little underrated, but taking threes isn't this team's strength. If McRae is taking a ton of shots you've probably frustrated this team.
4) Who are some faces Iowa fans should know in advance of Wednesday's game? Jordan McRae is Tennessee's leading scorer and looks like a big guard with a good shooting touch (he also appears to be the Vols' most dangerous outside shooter), while Jarnell Stokes looks like a load in the post. What do Iowa fans need to know about them -- or any other key players on this squad?
Again, Antonio Barton is a key hot/cold factor for UT's offense, and is the kind of player you don't want to hit his first shot. Jeronne Maymon is the emotional leader of this team even though most of his production has been replaced over the last two years by Stokes while he missed all of 2013 with a knee injury. The Vols have shortened things to an eight man rotation; the backup point guard is true freshman Darius Thompson, who has a lot of natural point guard skill but is not a scorer and very much a freshman at times. McRae and Stokes are three year starters who get what they get with great consistency, but again, when McRae is shooting 15+ times per game it usually means the Vols aren't doing a good enough job involving the other guys.
5) It's time for the tempo question. Tennessee plays at one of the more... deliberate paces in the NCAA, while Iowa typically plays at a much faster tempo. How important will the tempo battle be to the outcome of this game?
The Vols played an exceptionally slow pace earlier in the year, and while it has gotten faster it is certainly nowhere near what Iowa runs. We mentioned Tennessee's solid transition defense earlier; the hope is that helps slow Iowa down at least a little bit. The Vols did go 3-0 against teams averaging 70+ possessions this year with an 81-74 home win over Arkansas and blowouts at LSU 68-50 and over Ole Miss 86-70. So Tennessee has beaten up-tempo teams at their pace, but also forced them to slow down. With Tennessee playing so well recently I don't think the focus will be on intentionally slowing down so much as just locking in and playing good defense.
6) Finally, there's been a little chatter in the lead-up to this game about Cuonzo Martin's job security, or lack thereof. How much of a hot seat is he really on? How badly does he need to win this game?
Most, but not all, of the hot seat conversation with Cuonzo was related to Bruce Pearl. Pearl was clearly available since Auburn just hired him, but he was never really available to the same Tennessee administrators who fired him three years ago. But Pearl also made six straight NCAA Tournaments with three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight, plus a conference title (a big deal in a league with Kentucky and Florida) and a #1 ranking. Pearl was a consistent winner, and when Cuonzo's first two teams were heartbroken on selection Sunday, it put pressure on.
Then this year's team got off to a slow start (6-4 culminating in a home loss to NC State where we trailed by 17 at halftime), and even though Cuonzo got it pulled back together he didn't win any really huge games in the moment. We beat Virginia by 35, but that was in December and no one had any idea how good they'd be. The Vols lost to Kentucky and went 0-3 against Florida, and that was all she wrote for meaningful SEC win opportunities this year. So even with 21 wins on the year, we didn't beat any ranked teams and our best wins were only our best wins after the fact. With Pearl out of the equation I think Cuonzo is fine even if Iowa wins, but pressure will return next year if Cuonzo doesn't win a game or two in this tournament.
7) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
I like Tennessee mostly because I just think you take the team playing well coming into the tournament over the team on a slide. We've been the team on a slide as recently as 2011 and got tattooed by Michigan in Pearl's last game. Tennessee is one of the few teams to rebound the ball better than Iowa this year, and if our defensive intensity is there I think we can slow you down enough to win. One interesting note though: Tennessee hasn't won a close game all year. Our smallest margin of victory is seven points. Many of these players were involved in close wins last season, but that was last season. If it's close in the last four minutes, the Vols will have to prove they can play winning basketball with no margin for error.
Thanks for being a good sport, Will, although I still hope your team loses by 50 tomorrow night. You can check out Will and the rest of the RTT crew at Rocky Top Talk. You can also follow Will on Twitter at @wshelton2 and RTT at @RockyTopTalk. The Iowa-Tennessee game is in Dayton on Wednesday, March 19, and is scheduled to start at 8:00 pm CT, with television coverage from TruTV.