Don’t look now, but the Tennessee Volunteers are creeping up the ranks as a possible bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.
Winners of eight of their last nine games, Tennessee found a way to grab the No. 2 seed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, despite five teams lower than them having better overall records.
With a strong finish to the regular season, including wins at Florida and at home over Vanderbilt — two locks for the tournament — the Volunteers have surprised a lot of people under first-year coach Cuzono Martin.
Nobody expected this for the Vols — many thought they would dwell in the cellar of the SEC. After early season losses to Austin Peay, Charleston and Oakland, that prediction seemed likely.
But something changed, all it took was a 69-44 blowout victory to national title perennial favorite Kentucky to put a spark into this team, as they have just lost once since that game at the end of January. Sweeping the season series with the Gators and beating the Commodores shockingly gave them the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed in the SEC.
This year’s Vols don’t necessarily have the star power they have had in the past, with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris both leaving early after last season’s drama involving Bruce Pearl. But they have had a couple guys come out of nowehere to provide big lifts. Trae Golden, a guy who averaged all of three points a game last year, is currently leading Tennessee in scoring with 13.4 per game. He posted 17 points in each of the most recent Florida and Vanderbilt games.
Jeronne Maymon, in his second season at Tennessee after transferring from Marquette, has seen his minutes increase from just 9.1 last year to 27.8 this year. He has been the main post-presence for the Vols, averaging 12.6 and 7.8 a game. He picked it up when it counted too, scoring at least 12 points in every SEC game.
Perhaps the best player of the three is Jarnell Stokes, who came to Tennesee in January after graduating high school early. In his first start, he posted 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in an upset win over UConn. He’s scored in double figures six times this season, and is still just two months removed from his 18th birthday. Stokes has perhaps been the wild card on this team, as they have lost just three times since his first start nearly two months ago. He has quickly become one of the best freshman in the conference this side of Lexington.
What Martin has done this year in his first year at Tennessee coach is pretty remarkable, considering they lost 70 percent of their scoring from last year. They have had unknowns step up big, and that takes a special kind of coach to make that happen.
Those bad early season losses won’t go away, however, and that’s what will hurt Tennessee the most when it comes time to determine if they are good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament. But with those big conference wins, as well as the non-conference win over Connecticut, things are looking good in Knoxville.
They aren’t in yet, but a win or two in the SEC Tournament this weekend will surely help their cause. They’ve got Ole Miss on Friday, a team they beat 73-60 last month. If they win that one they will likely play Vanderbilt, who they beat just last weekend. They are on the outside looking in at the moment, but that can change this weekend. And don’t be surprised if they keep on with their surprises.
Five games you should’ve watched, and five games you still have a chance to see. All while your wife makes you run around for two hours, including a trip to Sephora that I’m pretty sure qualifies as some sort of misdemeanor kidnapping.
No. 1 Kentucky-83, Vanderbilt-74
-Kentucky (28-1, 14-0 SEC) clinched the overall SEC title with the win over the Commodores (20-9, 9-5), and got one of the best performances of the season out of National Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis. Davis dropped in a career-high 28 points, pulled down 11 boards and also had six blocks. Coach John Calipari said after that he thought about letting his team take it on the chin, but said he couldn’t. He’s a brilliant basketball mind…but also a notorious BS’er. Nonetheless, UK with a good win.
No. 4 Duke-70, Virginia Tech-65, OT
-This Duke (25-4, 12-2 ACC) team makes everything close this conference season. The Hokies (15-14, 4-10) have had Duke’s number in recent years, but hey, this season there isn’t even talk of VaTech being On The Bubble, so the final was a bit surprising. Cadarian Gaines missed a jumper that would’ve won the game for VT with time running out, and the Blue Devils kept hitting shots in the extra period. Austin Rivers had 23 points in the win and Miles Plumlee showed off his best Ben Wallace with 15 rebounds and only 5 points for the Dukies.
St. John’s-61, No. 18 Notre Dame-58
-Whoa. Any see this coming? (Put your damn hand down). The Redmen (13-16, 6-10 Big East) — it’s more fun to say that than Red Storm, it sounds like a VD — led 31-25 at halftime and an Alex Dragicevich three went begging at the buzzer to give the Johnnies their most relevant win this season. Big hit to Mike Brey’s Irish (20-9, 12-4) squad, who are still probably in the Dance, but might take a seeding hit for this one.
Iowa State-65, Kansas State-61
-Can anyone figure out this K-State (19-9, 8-8 Big 12) team? Beat Mizzou (granted, at home) then get beat by, in fairness, a solid Iowa State (21-8, 11-5) squad that probably will make the Tournament. But damn, this one would’ve helped a lot for the Wildcats, Frank Martin obviously is losing all sorts of heat on his laser-like stare. It doesn’t help when you let Scott Christopherson go for 29 on 10-of-13 shooting.
GAMES TO COME (All times eastern, home teams first)
No. 5 Kansas (23-5, 13-2 Big 12) v. No. 3 Missouri (25-3, 13-2 Big 12) (4 p.m., CBS)
-It’s a travesty, really. This is the last battle in the Border War in the known future. But at least we get a great one between two top-5 teams in a venue that just might implode in Allen Fieldhouse with the tension as high as it is. Look for the biggest match-up to be a streaking Jeff Withey, averaging nearly a double-double recently, against Mizzou big man Ricardo Ratliffe, who leads the nation in field goal percentage.
Virginia (21-6, 8-5 ACC) v. No. 7 North Carolina (24-4, 11-2 ACC) (4 p.m., ESPN)
-The last time these two teams played, both were ranked. The Cavaliers are close to that now (like it matters?) but Tony Bennett’s squad needs to put together a solid second half this time around. The Tar Heels only led 35-32 at halftime in the first meeting between the two before outscoring the Wahoos by 15 in the second half to pull away.
No. 13 Michigan (21-7, 11-4 Big Ten) v. Purdue (18-10, 8-7 Big Ten) (6 p.m., Big Ten Network)
-This one is more about the Boilermakers than Go Blue. Purdue is most definitely on the wrong side of the bubble right now, and need another solid Big Ten win — and probably need to beat Indiana on the road after that — to get back on it. Robbie Hummel is averaging 26.5 points over the last two games.
VCU (24-6, 14-3 CAA) v. George Mason (23-7, 14-3 CAA) (6 p.m., ESPN2)
-Winner leaves with the Colonial Athletic Association crown, it’s that simple. A Sherrod Wright 3-pointer at the horn was the difference last time in a 62-61 win for the Colonials. Shaka Smart won’t let the Rams forget that.
Harvard (24-3, 10-1 Ivy) v. Penn (16-11, 8-2 Ivy) (7 p.m, ESPN3)
-Harvard can essentially lock up the Ivy League with a win, which will put them three wins and two losses ahead of the Quakers with two games left. After being less than a second from their first NCAA Tournament berth last season, you can bet Tommy Amaker has this squad prepared.
No. 23 St. Mary’s (24-5, 13-2 WCC) v. San Francisco (18-11, 8-7 WCC) (11 p.m., No TV)
-The only reason this one is intriguing is because the Dons defeated Gonzaga last week, and could have their minds on another upset against the Gaels.St. Mary’s demolished Portland, and a win over USF could earn a lot of respect for them after being dominated in their Bracketbuster loss at Murray State.
-PHOTO: GOOGLE IMAGES
No. 23 Louisville 77, West Virginia 74
-Wayne Blackshear made his debut (24 games in) four Louisville, and scored 13 points. While there was a lot to talk about in this game — we’ll get to it — that has to be the most encouraging part for Louisville fans. Blackshear obviously kept himself in basketball shape while rehabbing. The future is bright…. Now, talk about going in opposite directions. The Cardinals (20-5, 8-4 Big East) reached 20 wins and have won six straight now, while the loss is the Mountaineers’ (16-10, 6-7) have lost five of their last six. WVU led for most of the game until a Kyle Kuric 3-pointer and a steal-and-score by Russ Smith on the ensuing inbounds play gave Louisville a 73-71 lead with 2:17 left. Kyle Kuric would steal a Gary Browne pass inside to Kevin Jones with 10 seconds left, hit two free throws after being fouled, and Truck Bryant’s left wing 3 went begging as time expired.
Butler 52, Cleveland State 49
-A big win for the Bulldogs (15-12, 9-6 Horizon League), who really needed this just for confidence heading into crunch time and the Horizon League tournament. The Vikings (20-6, 10-4) had a shot at an at-large bid, but those hopes are dashed now. All a matter of who gets hot in the tourney. Butler held Cleveland State to 26.3 percent from 3-point range and forced 16 turnovers, all the while overcoming an 0-for-8 3-point day and shooting 38 percent on their own.
No.5 North Carolina 70, No. 20 Virginia 52
-It was a game in the first half, with the Tar Heels (21-4, 8-2 ACC) leading just 35-32 at the half. The second half made a lot of people believe that the Cavaliers (19-5, 6-4) might not be the team everyone expected, what with Mike Scott getting completely owned and UNC showing no ill effects from that tough loss to Duke. Tyler Zeller had 25 points and nine rebounds for the Heels, with John Henson (10 and10) and Harrison Barnes (14 and 11) notching double-doubles. The bigs were obviously the difference in this one. Mike Scott has been carrying the Wahoos all season and had 18 in the loss.
No. 2 Syracuse 85, UConn 67
-I’m not saying that UConn (15-9, 5-7 Big East) can’t bounce back from a game that they basically quit in at Louisville, but they didn’t start with a loss at the ‘Cuse (25-1, 12-1). Four players finished in double-figures and Andre Drummond has 13 points and seven boards in the loss. But they never could match up athletically with the Orange, which if you’ve seen the Huskies, shouldn’t happen. They’ve got as much talent and athletic ability as any team in the nation.
No. 4 Missouri 72, No. 6 Baylor 57
-The Tigers (23-2, 9-2 Big 12) got the sweep over the Bears (21-4, 8-4) on the season, and wow, they did it quick. This team is guard-heavy, and they ran on Baylor’s athletic big men in the second half, using a 17-1 keyed by three 3-pointers midway through the second half to propel them to the W. Phil Pressey had 19 points and four three’s in the game and Mizzou shot 50 percent from 3-point range (14-for-28). They bombed it. Baylor still has to figure out it’s identity, which is scary considering it’s identity. They have long athletic forwards who play essentially like swingmen in Perry Jones III and the Quincy’s (Miller and Acy) but seem inept at finishing down low, though Acy has improved. Most telling stat? They out-rebounded Mizzou 35-22.
No. 17 Florida State 64, Miami 59
-The Hurricanes (15-8, 6-4 ACC) didn’t necessarily hurt their at-large hopes with this loss to the Seminoles (17-7, 8-2), but if they don’t get in, this is one game that Jim Larranaga will look at and shake his head. Reggie Johnson was held to four points (which can’t happen) to go with six rebounds, which really was the difference being that the game was never more than a three-possession game late. Bernard James ha 18 points, six boards and four blocks in the win.
Vanderbilt vs. No. 1 Kentucky (9 p.m., ESPN)
-A lot of folks taking Vandy (17-7, 6-4 SEC) in this one, especially being at home in Memorial Coliseum and the magic that seems to ensue in big games there for the Commodores. Kentucky (24-1, 10-0) is still Kentucky, they still have Anthony Davis and his Stretch Armstrong arms. It’s going to be tough for Festus Ezeli to be effective by himself, they’ll really need guys like Steve Tchiengang to show up down low and 6-8 Lance Gilbourne to provide a mid-range to draw out Davis and Kentucky’s other lengthy bigs.
No. 15 Creighton vs. Wichita State (5 p.m., ESPN2)
-Just another day in the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton (21-4, 11-3 MVC) is somehow surviving in the Top-25 despite losses to Northern Iowa and Evansville on the road. Granted, they’ll fall come tomorrow, but a win over the Shockers (21-4, 12-2) would not only help them stay in the rankings, but also go a long way to help their confidence and steady their at-large hopes. Which to me, is the best a conference win can do, being that teams see these opponents automatically every year. Wichita State has won three in a row after a loss at Drake.
No. 16 UNLV vs. No. 14 San Diego State (4 p.m, The Mtn.)
-This one is set for a classic. The Rebels (21-4, 5-2 Mountain West Conference) losing at Wyoming in their last game took some luster off this game, but it’s still a battle of Top-20 teams. The Aztecs (20-3, 6-1) have only lost one game since Dec. 4, a bad one at Colorado State, but other than that have been soaring.
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Michigan State (6 p.m., ESPN)
-It seems like every week, the Buckeyes (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) play the second-best team in the B1G. Whoever it is. This week, it’s Michigan State (19-5, 8-3). It’ll be Jared Sullinger vs. Draymond Green for the most part, but can any of the Spartan’s guards get past ball-hawking Aaron Craft? That will probably be a big reason if Tom Izzo’s bunch can get a win. Look for William Buford to have a big game for tOSU, he had a career-high 29 last game, a victory at Purdue.
Temple vs. Xavier (9 p.m., ESPN2)
-What do the Owls have to do to get some serious poll love? They’ve beaten Duke this season, have a KenPom rating of 30 and have won eight in a row after a bad loss to Richmond on the road. They’re 18-5 overall and 7-2 in the Atlantic 10 and also have wins over Wichita State and Penn, two teams deep in the NCAA Tournament conversation. They won’t help themselves that much with a win over the Musketeers (16-8, 7-3), but it would certainly make me look stupid if they took a loss. Chris Mack’s squad, on the other hand, desperately needs a confidence W, losing three of their last six.
-PHOTO: GOOGLE IMAGES
Will the real Vanderbilt Commodores please stand up? Seriously, I can’t get a grip on this team, and that’s the way they have been for the last few years.
This team is talented enough to make the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, as shown by their No. 7 preseason national rank. But they tend to have mental lapses, which could see them falling in the first round (for the third straight year).
When they finally started to show they are a threat in the Southeastern Conference (going 6-1 to begin conference play), they lost two road games at Arkansas and Florida. Neither loss is necessarily bad, as both teams are in the top third in the SEC standings, but if they can’t beat those two teams, they will have an awfully tough go against Kentucky.
The Commodores face the Wildcats twice in February, the first one coming Saturday on their home court. Vandy should be in the tournament with their current record, but they could use a marquee win against a team like UK (who couldn’t?). They have beaten just one ranked opponent all year, a convincing 74-57 win at Marquette. But that’s it. They have fallen to three ranked teams in overtime (Xavier, Louisville and Mississippi State), and also boast a couple home losses that could be resume killers (Cleveland State and Indiana State).
Vanderbilt’s success lies on the talented wing-duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, one of the top duos in the country. Jenkins averages 19.7 a game and has the ability to make three’s from any spot on the floor. Taylor averages 17.7 points a game, as the slasher on the team. Vandy can go as far as their wing-tandem can take them.
Vanderbilt will need improved play from their post players in order to see more success. They rank just 136th in the nation in rebounding for the year. One of their post-players, Festus Ezeli, missed 10 games early in the season with a knee injury, but he
still has not been able to put up the numbers he did in his junior season when he averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
This is the year for Vanderbilt, as they have six seniors with loads of experience on their team. The Commodores have been known as an underachiever for quite some time now, and this is the last chance Kevin Stallings’ team has to quiet the critics.
I’ve picked the Commodores to make it to the Sweet 16 in my bracket each of the last two years, only to see them be upset by a mid-major both years. Odds are, I’m going to pick them to advance to at least the second round again this season, but would anyone be surprised anymore if they don’t?