Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The State of Tennessee - Memphis, UT, and Vandy

Call me crazy, but I think that the Memphis Tigers loss on Saturday night to the Tennessee Volunteers might have been the best thing that could have happened to them. Ok, that's a little much, but it is definitely a blessing in disguise.

Hear me out. Barring a collapse down the stretch, Memphis is still just about guaranteed a No. 1 seed come March, because a loss to fellow No. 1 seed is not going to hurt your seeding. But what the loss to the Volunteers does is shed Memphis of the burden of being undefeated this late in the year. Not only is the pressure of a perfect record gone, but it is a wake up call to these kids. They can be beat. Now, instead of worrying about having their perfect season ended against a team like Tulsa, Memphis can focus on the undefeated record that matters, 6-0 in the tournament. There is never a "good loss", but things could be much worse for Memphis right now.

They could be in Tennessee's position. The Volunteers won on Saturday and earned their first ever #1 ranking in either national poll. But after just one day off, they had to travel to Nashville to play SEC rival Vanderbilt, where they lost tonight to a Vanderbilt team that was in foul trouble all night - AJ Ogilvy, who averages 18 and 9, played 12 minutes and starting PG Alex Gordon sat for eight minutes after picking up his fourth and fouled out with two minutes left. This game was much more important than the Memphis game, because with the loss Tennessee drops to just one game up (in the loss column) on Kentucky and Mississippi State in the SEC standings. It doesn't get any easier for the Volunteers, who get those very same Wildcats (the last team to beat the Vols before Vandy) at home and Florida on the road in the next six days.

The bigger issue here is that Tennessee just came out flat tonight. They were down by as much as 14 in the first half and could never get any flow offensively (they shot 33% for the game). With the exception of the first four minutes of the second half, Tennessee got nothing out of its press. Chris Lofton was the only player who get could anything going, and even though he shot 6-15 from three, the majority of those were forced, fade-aways with a hand in his face. But what bothered me the most was the lack on composure the Vols showed (ironically, Bruce Pearl was quoted after the Memphis game as saying that he was most impressed with his team's composure). JaJuan Smith and Bruce Pearl both got T'ed up (although Pearl's was probably a tactic to give his team some energy in the first half). Duke Crews came flying off the bench when JaJuan Smith and a Vandy player got into a scuffle. Down the stretch they took terrible shots (the two that come to mind are Ramar Smith's floater that got swatted and the deep, fadeaway three JaJuan Smith took from the corner on a 1-on-2 break) and missed 5 of their last six free throws. Given all of that, the Vols were still lost by three. If they can turn it around against Kentucky, you can chalk this one up to a good team having a bad night.

You have to give some credit to Vanderbilt, however. They played stifling defense, had role players hit big shots, and made their free throws at the end. Shan Foster may have won himself SEC player of the year with this performance. He had 32 points on 9-13 shooting, including 6-9 from three. After hitting four early, Tennessee started clamping down on his jumper, but he was able to blow by whoever was guarding him, and even posted up a few times, showing off a nice jump hook. Jermaine Beal also had a fantastic game, scoring 17 points while hitting big shots and big free throws in the second half. And all of this was essentially without Ogilvy. This Commodore team had a rough start to the SEC season, but these guys are for real. You do not want to see this team in your bracket.

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