The Frogs get a much-needed mini-break from Big 12 play tomorrow afternoon with a contest against the Tennessee Volunteers as part of the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Frogs are 2-0 in the event, having knocked off Mississippi and Mississippi State in the last two seasons. Will Shelton of Rocky Top Talk was gracious enough to spare some of his time to help us get to know the Vols. Be sure to check out my half of our Q&A right here!
1. TCU and Tennessee haven't met on the hardwood since 1991. For Frog fans who might not be up to speed with Volunteer hoops, give us a quick rundown of this year's team.
Tennessee is on its third coach in three years and fourth in six years. Bruce Pearl took the Vols to six straight NCAA Tournaments, a number one ranking in 2008 and the Elite Eight in 2010. His departure due to NCAA violations in 2011 led to three years of Cuonzo Martin, capped off by a Sweet 16 in 2014 and then a departure for Cal after having enough of suffering for not being Bruce Pearl. Cuonzo's move led to Donnie Tyndall and the customary roster turnover; Tyndall probably overachieved in getting the Vols to .500 last year before he was fired for NCAA violations at Southern Miss. The timing lined up for the Vols to land Rick Barnes, who retained most of Tyndall's players but lost Josh Richardson to graduation and the NBA Draft.
Here in late January the Vols are again a .500 team, but have gotten there playing a very different brand of basketball. Last year the Vols were the 15th slowest team in the nation in possessions per 40 minutes. This year they are 47th fastest. Kevin Punter transitioned from shooting guard to point guard, Rick Barnes changed his jump shot, and now he's eighth in the nation in scoring at 22.9 points per game, a pace that hasn't been seen in Knoxville since Allan Houston. The roster turnover that did take place from Tyndall to Barnes involved all post players, so the Vols have been starting a lineup of 6'5" and under and making the best of it. Somehow they're still 28th nationally in blocked shots; Armani Moore is the best non-post shot blocker I've ever seen at UT. And they shoot free throws really well, 82.1% in conference play. But they are still often up and down, struggle to find consistent scoring beyond Punter, and can fall in love far too easily with the three ball. No lead is safe, for Tennessee or their opponent.
2. As you mentioned above, Rick Barnes is in his first season at the helm in Knoxville after 17 seasons at Texas. Do you think he is a good fit at Tennessee? How would you assess his first couple of months on the job?
Barnes is a great fit culturally: he's from just across the border in North Carolina, he knows what it's like to be at a university where football is king, and his track record has enough firepower to stand against both Pearl's past and the SEC's present. I think Barnes has done a great job in several coaching areas - Punter's shot, transitioning from a slow deliberate pace to full speed ahead, getting smaller players to defend in the post without fouling - but hasn't yet found all the right buttons to push with this team emotionally. Tennessee is full of upperclassmen, but still fades at times in late game situations. On their third coach in three years with little chance of making the NCAA Tournament, it would be hard for any coach to even identify these buttons let alone push them effectively.
3. Who is your mid-season MVP from this year's team?
It's easily Kevin Punter. The next step for Tennessee is to figure out how to score from places other than the three point line when Punter is double-teamed. When those threes are falling, the Vols can roll. When they aren't, their offense becomes ineffective quickly.
4. For a team like TCU, the Big 12/SEC Challenge provides a slight break from the night-in, night-out dogfight that is the Big 12 Conference. Do Tennessee fans feel that same way about SEC play? Do you think this event is good for the two leagues?
The SEC has typically been top-heavier than the Big 12, and as the Vols have generally been part of that group since Pearl's arrival, I think we've viewed conference play less as a night-in night-out dogfight and more of, "Where are the games against Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida on the schedule?" In that sense I think fans will generally enjoy the SEC/Big 12 match-up for a chance to play another good team; last year Tennessee took advantage and beat Kansas State in a big early win for Donnie Tyndall. It helps the SEC more as a whole, but is a great opportunity for the handful of Big 12 teams who draw the SEC's top tier. And, in this case, it's a great chance for a .500ish team to get a win to hopefully get back on track.
5. Finally, give us your prediction for tomorrow afternoon's game. These two teams seem to be pretty evenly matched. Do the Vols steal a road win, or can TCU improve to 3-0 all-time in the Big 12/SEC Challenge?
Tennessee has yo-yoed a bit here after two really good performances in a win over Florida and a near miss against Texas A&M. Since then the Vols were bad in the second half at Georgia, won at Mississippi State, were dominated by Vanderbilt, beat a ranked South Carolina team, then gave away a pair of significant second half leads at a bad Alabama team. So the Vols are due to rebound, right? I'll take those odds slightly over a TCU team that's in more of a free-fall. I'm sure getting out of league play might give a sense that this one will be different though; I'd expect a close game with the Vols coming away victorious in the end behind Kevin Punter.
I'd like to extend a big thanks to Will and the team over at Rocky Top Talk. Head on over to their site for a different perspective on this weekend's contest!