The experts have analyzed Tennessee’s Jekyll and Hyde season ad infinitum, tossing out reasons such as coach Bruce Pearl’s
NCAA issues, team chemistry, poor defense, Scotty Hopson
, etc. etc. Bu the core issue for the Vols’ maddening inconsistency is actually much simpler than it may seem.
This team has to be challenged. Or at least, it has to think it’s being challenged.
Statistics can at times be misleading, but there are two stats that never lie, because they reflect effort and intensity. How can a team beat Villanova to win the NIT Season Tip-off and Pittsburgh but lose five home games, including to Division II Indianapolis in an exhibition?
It all comes down to defense and rebounding.
Ironically, so it seems, the Vols have let their guard down in their Thompson-Boling Arena, where, in five previous seasons under Bruce Pearl, they had been close to unbeatable (73-8, .901). Consider that in four homecourt losses to Oakland, USC, College of Charleston and Florida, the Vols allowed a hospitable collective .525 field-goal percentage. Compare that to three victories that continued to serve Tennessee well in the RPI ratings (the Vols are No. 24 in the Collegiate Basketball News rankings and have the No. 1 strength of schedule in the nation). VCU, Villanova and Pitt shot a combined .350.
And there’s more: Tennessee outrebounded each of those teams, including Pitt, which leads the nation in rebound margin.
Tennessee’s win over Vanderbilt last Saturday was a microcosm of its season so far. The Commodores led by as many as 17 points in the first half and a blowout loomed. At halftime, associate coach Tony Jones
, subbing for Pearl during an eight-game suspension from Southeastern Conference games, got in some faces and challenged the Vols, who had already lost their first two league games.
Another loss, Jones said, could send them into a tailspin from which they might not recover. Thusly inspired, Tennessee reached inward to locate a dormant cache of intestinal fortitude and pulled out a 67-64 win. Again, the effort stats were hard to ignore. The Vols held Vandy to .415 shooting, forced 21 turnovers and grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, eight of them by senior post Brian Williams
SEC coaches thought they had seen the last of former South Carolina blur Devan Downey
when his eligibility expired after last season. Little did they know the impact his replacement, freshman Bruce Ellington
, would have.
“A lot of us thought Downey was gone,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings
said, “but he’s back in the form of Bruce Ellington.”
Stallings is qualified to make that statement after Ellington, much like Downey used to do, took over a game against the Commodores, making 6-of-12 three-points and scoring 22 points in South Carolina’s come-from-behind win.
Ellington was back at it last Saturday at Florida, scoring 23 points, including eight in the final 2:55, to lead South Carolina to a 72-69 win that left the Gamecocks in a four-way tie for first in the Eastern Division at 2-1.
Despite those Downey-like performances, South Carolina coach Darrin Horn
doesn’t want to compare the games of Ellington and Downey.
“We’re not big into individual comparisons,” Horn said. “Players have their own games. Circumstances with teams are completely different. Devan was a special talent with unique ability. Bruce is a different kind of player who’s trying to build his own career.”
Horn may be reluctant to compare and contrast Downey and Ellington, but Florida coach Billy Donovan
“Devan Downey was one of those really unique players that’s come into this league,” Donovan said. “But I think Ellington will end up being a better player.
“Downey had to score so much last year, but I always felt like he was a guy that rested on defense; he was always conserving energy to play on the offensive end of the floor. Ellington to me is a much, much more complete player, offensively and defensively. He’s got a great command of his game and great presence for a young kid.”
BOST TO THE RESCUE: Renardo Sidney’s
Mississippi State debut after a full season and nine games on the sidelines had been much anticipated, and without a doubt, the big man has made an impact, on the court and off. But Bulldog coach Rick Stansbury
knew the true impact player he was waiting on was point guard Dee Bost
, who sat out the first semester because of an NCAA suspension and academic ineligibility.
Sure enough, after the first week of SEC games that included several strong individual performances around the league, it was Bost who claimed player-of-the-week honors for his handiwork in victories over Ole Miss and Auburn. Though he scored 25 against the Rebels, the statistic that jumps out from Bost’s big week is assists. He passed for 16, eight in each game.
A year ago, Bost might have looked for his own shot a bit too often. This season, while he’s obviously proven he can score when he wants/needs to, Bost’s passing has given the Bulldogs (10-7, 2-1), who struggled mightily in his absence, a lift.
“He’s become our primary ball-handler at all times,” Stansbury said. “Last year we could initiate the offense with Barry Stewart
, who was his backup. That took a little pressure off Dee and gave us more flexibility.
“[But] the biggest thing [Bost has] learned over the years is you don’t have to search for your shot. You’re a point guard, you’ve got to get it in the lane and get other people open shots. At the same time, when he’s got shots, he’s got the ability to make them.”
REBELS’ D TESTED:
A week ago, Ole Miss looked like the one sure bet in the SEC’s Western Division to realistically compete for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. Now the Rebels are 0-3 after having lost two home games. What gives?
In fairness, Ole Miss, which opened at Florida, caught the bad end of the SEC’s new Thursday night schedule. Last Thursday they played host—and lost to—Mississippi State, then after that deflating outcome had only one day to get ready to host Georgia and its multiple-option, triangle offense. The result wasn’t pretty—the Bulldogs shot .635 from the field and won, 98-76. “I thought Georgia put on a clinic,” Rebel coach Andy Kennedy
If the Rebels are to fight their way back into contention in the West, they’ll need to tighten up their defense. In three SEC games, their opponents are shooting a combined .531 from the field and .433 from three-point range.
“We have to play with passion and enthusiasm and belief,” Kennedy said, “if we’re going to get this thing turned.”
FRANKIE ON THE SHELF:
If the SEC handed out a gut-check award, Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan’s
name would already be engraved on it. After undergoing ACL surgery in July and missing the season’s first eight games, Sullivan defied medical logic and returned to the court.
He played in six games, averaging eight points, three assists and 24.7 minutes and, not coincidentally, he led the offensively challenged Tigers to a four-game winning streak that was capped by a victory over Florida State, which went on to hand Duke its first loss of the season.
Sullivan gave it his best shot, but when his knee began hurting before SEC play, he decided to shut it down for the year. The results since his second departure—an 0-3 start in the league—have been predictable.
“[Sullivan is] why we went on that four-game win streak,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee
said. “It’s no coincidence we’ve gone on a three-game slide. He means so much to a young, inexperienced team. He gives us a lift confidence wise, but he also gives us a lift because he can put the ball in the hole.”
Auburn announced on Monday that Sullivan plans to red-shirt, preserving an entire season of eligibility.