Mike Strange: At a loss, but Vols should embrace kinder, gentler schedule

Mike Strange

From the Darkest Just Before The Dawn Department, this optimistic bulletin:

The worst is over for Tennessee basketball.

The worst of the worst came Tuesday night, scoring 44 points and shooting 28 percent at Rupp Arena against No. 1 Kentucky.

The 69-44 loss was a low point for Cuonzo Martin's first season, but it signaled a passage of sorts.

Tennessee's SEC schedule was front-loaded with difficult assignments. The Vols have faced Kentucky twice. A team can take only so much rejection and Anthony Davis lives to reject.

Furthermore, three of UT's toughest road games are in the rearview mirror — Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

The Vols are 2-5 in league play, which on opening day I would have projected as close to a best-case scenario. UT was, after all, picked to finish 11th or 12th in the SEC standings.

Nine games remain. While there is no such thing as a sure thing for a team with the Vols' limitations, there is opportunity to make headway.

Next up?

It's not so much who as when and where.

The important thing to know is Tennessee's next game is Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. The opponent, incidentally, is Georgia.

The point is that Saturdays at TBA have been a safe port in the storm for the Vols and their fans.

Since the Dec. 10 loss to Austin Peay, Tennessee has beaten UNC Asheville, Florida, Connecticut and Auburn on Saturday at home. The Vols also played strong in their only Saturday home loss, 65-62 to Kentucky.

After Georgia comes another home game, South Carolina. In other words, a chance for a breakthrough midweek win.

All told, there are four games remaining against the three teams at the bottom of the standings, South Carolina, Georgia and LSU.

Home games against Ole Miss and Arkansas are winnable. The Razorbacks may be (40 minutes of) hell on wheels at home but they've yet to win a road game.

Neither has Tennessee. The Vols gagged at Georgia, but were facing long odds in Starkville, Nashville or Lexington. They

have four remaining chances: Florida, Alabama, LSU and South Carolina.

There might be a road win in there or there might not. In any case, none of those trips will be as daunting as what the Vols faced Tuesday night in Rupp.

A team struggling to make shots ran into arguably the best defensive team in the nation. It wasn't pretty.

Effort wasn't a problem. Tennessee never quit. The Vols simply dribbled into the proverbial buzzsaw when the Wildcats made their first 11 shots.

After that, Kentucky shot only 37 percent. But UT was too offensively out of sync to make up any ground.

It wasn't a fluke, either. Getting his perimeter guys to make baskets has become an ongoing issue for Martin.

"Your starters have to bring something to the table,'' he said.

Martin has gotten his guys to buy into the defensive commitment he wanted. It appears their offensive confidence has suffered in the bargain, though.

Now he has to convince them that they can find the energy to be productive at both ends of the court simultaneously. That's what he learned to do at Purdue.

If they can master that mission, a kinder, gentler schedule offers possibilities.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem//twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange

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Comments » 1

johnlg00 writes:

It seems likely that the Vols will finish the regular season no better than 8-8. Barring a very unlikely SEC tourney championship, they probably won't make it to the NCAAs. The NIT is still attainable, and the extra practice and an extra game or three could go a long way toward setting them up for next season. It would be another way to attract the eye of another high-quality recruit or two.

Strange seemed to imply that the Vols' offense suffered because they expended too much energy on defense to play good offense. Back when Mears was coaching at UT, the Vols were always among the nation's leaders in defense. Part of that was the relatively slow-paced, pre-shot-clock offense, but Mears' Vols were also very efficient on offense. Though sometimes overlooked by casual fans, UT was also among the nation's leaders in Offensive Efficiency Rating, i.e., the number of points scored per possession. Anything over 1.0 is considered pretty good; the Vols were often near 1.3 or so. Mears made much of this number, and it WAS significant.

This UT team's OER must be about .6 points per possession, given the combination of low field-goal percentage and the unconscionable number of turnovers. I would be interested to know what the OER of Vol opponents has been this season. In predicting or explaining the performance of one team against another, especially if they favor different game tempos, a comparison of OER for and against is a much more enlightening measuring stick than PPG or FG% for and against. Needless to say, there is PLENTY of room for improvement in OER. The rest of the season will largely depend on that. Indeed, the length and success of Martin's tenure will depend on it as well.

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