Tennessee Basketball: How the Vols Match Up with Memphis, Florida, MS St. and UK
As Tennessee takes an unimpressive four-game win streak into its annual meeting with Memphis, and later conference play, Coach Cuonzo Martin has glaring holes to address if he hopes to have any success in his first season with the Vols.
However, the news of star recruit Jarnell Stokes choosing Tennessee over powerhouse programs Kentucky, UConn and Florida (among others) may be the shot in arm Martin and Co. have been looking for to push the team to be a NCAA tournament sleeper.
But with the Vols' most brutal stretch of their season waiting, and with Stokes unavailable until Jan. 12 at the earliest, Martin will see a glimpse into his team's potential and what the future may hold for the program.
Here's how Tennessee will match up in its next four games.
At Memphis, Jan. 4
Memphis has played well below preseason expectations.
The Tigers have lost three of the last six (including a 76-72 loss to Murray St.), dropped out of the Top 25 and only boast quality wins over Miami and Tennessee.
While the team ranks 31st in both scoring and field-goal percentage, the Tigers have been plagued with poor defense and off-court drama with sophomore guard Joe Jackson.
Tennessee pushed Memphis to the brink in an epic, double-overtime contest in Maui, where both teams combined for nearly 200 points. The Tigers' lack of size in the frontcourt and overall youth (four sophomores and one freshman in the starting lineup) gives the Vols a fair advantage with upperclassmen Kenny Hall and Jeronne Maymon in the post.
Opposing teams, however, have frustrated Tennessee's big men with zone defense, forcing more perimeter shots and taking advantage of the Vols' inconsistent shooting.
If Tennessee hopes to walk away with its first quality win of the season, it has to force the Tigers into a half-court game, dominate under the basket and hope sophomore guard Will Barton struggles to find his shot.
Vs. Florida, Jan. 7
The Gators are a difficult team to assess.
Florida has earned a Top 15 ranking with quality wins over Texas A&M, Florida St. and Arizona, and losses to Syracuse and Ohio St. don't take away from the team's season resume.
However, a loss to Big East bottom-feeder Rutgers over the weekend exposed weaknesses in the Gators' otherwise impressive 11-3 season.
Erratic play from guards Kenny Boyton and Irving Walker (who've both been labeled as selfish at times this season) led to 18 turnovers against the Scarlet Knights. If the Vols can finally make good on Martin's defense-centric system, Tennessee could take advantage of backcourt turnovers for transition points.
But all will be for nought if the Vols' big men can't contain Patric Young in the post. The sophomore has four double-doubles already this season, two coming against Ohio St and Arizona.
If Jeronne Maymon gets into foul trouble early, Young could have a career day in Knoxville.
At Mississippi St., Jan. 12
With Jarnell Stokes finally eligible, Tennessee's trip to Starkville could be the turning point of the Vols' season.
Anchored by double-double machine Arnett Moultrie (16.8 PPG, 11.4 RPG), Mississippi St. boasts one of the top front lines in the nation.
With freshman Rodney Hood vying for the SEC's top freshman and Renardo Sydney's dramatically improved play, the Vols will rely heavily on mid-range shooting from Cameron Tatum and Jordan McRae. If Trae Golden can facilitate open shots, Tennessee could force the Bulldogs into man defense and open the lane for Maymon, Hall and possibly Stokes.
The X-factor, however, is the point guard matchup between Golden and Bulldogs senior Dee Bost, who's averaging nearly 16 points per game.
Vs. Kentucky, Jan. 14
After 14 games, it's obvious the Wildcats' lone weakness is their attitude toward their opponent.
John Calipari's NBA D-League team might rival even the 2009-10 team that produced five first-round draft picks. Only three teams have even finished within single digits of Kentucky, including preseason No. 1 North Carolina.
Like Florida, however, the Wildcats have been prone to selfish play (Terrance Jones at Indiana, for example), and their immaturity can overshadow their overwhelming talent at times.
If Tennessee can keep pace and force Kentucky's underclassmen into pressure situations, the Vols might have a slim chance to pull off a stunning upset.
But if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has another performance like he had against Louisville (24 pts, 19 reb), Martin may need to use this as an example of what his team should aspire to be.
A victory will convince Stokes he shouldn't reconsider committing to Lexington.