Tennessee Volunteers' Problem Is the Target on Their Backs

Andrew KaufmanSenior Analyst IJanuary 15, 2009

Remember that slump Tennessee was in last week? Look’s like it’s not over yet.

The Volunteers appeared to have shored some things up during a Saturday victory over Georgia, but an 18-point loss to archrival Kentucky at home has Tennessee fans wondering what’s wrong with their team. It sure is lonely at the top.

Before we look into Tennessee’s problem, though, let’s be clear about one thing:  There was almost nothing the Vols could have done Tuesday night. They lost that game because of Jodie Meeks, who set a Kentucky record by scoring 54 of the Wildcats’ 90 points.

That’s right. Meeks score 60 percent of his team’s points. He was absolutely unstoppable, hitting multiple three-pointers with hands in his face and without even needing to set his feet. It was the best game of Meeks’ life and most likely the best game Kentucky has played all season.

But the Vols better get used to it, because Tuesday night won’t be the last time something like this happens in 2009.

They’re the champs now. They won the SEC regular season crown by two games last season with a stellar 14-2 record, earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the process.

Tennessee’s conference foes are going to be gunning for them all season—every night. The Volunteers are going to get their opponents’ best shot. They better be ready for it.

Some of the Tennessee players are used to this atmosphere by now. Last season, the Vols started the year ranked in the top-10 in the country. They remained their virtually the whole season, and were heavy conference favorites as a result.

The Vols took every team’s best shot then, too. But they had veteran leaders in Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith to guide them through the process. Tennessee didn’t rely on a single freshman to play quality minutes, and they had the poise to withstand rallies and work their way back into games.

And they withstood rallies often. In their two games against Florida, an exciting young team who is one of the Vols’ biggest rivals, Tennessee fell behind by double-digits almost right after the opening tip. They won both games easily.

Sure, they had a couple rough nights—the Volunteers couldn’t recover from their post-Memphis letdown in the first half against Vanderbilt, for example—but, by and large, Tennessee withstood the challenges it faced night in and night out.

This year’s Vols have yet to learn what they have to do to withstand those same challenges. They have yet to learn to hit their foul shots—while Jodie Meeks was busy draining threes from everywhere. Tennessee started the game 5-14 from the free throw line. If they had remained composed and shot at a clip more befitting a conference favorite, the Vols would have been able to keep the game close.

They have yet to learn to take good shots. The Vols are still taking way too many three-pointers, particularly early in the shot clock. They need to get the ball inside more.

They have yet to learn to protect the ball. After a stretch of good play from Tennessee, they cut the Wildcats’ lead to 71-64 late in the game.  Meeks hit one of his 10 three-pointers. On the next possession, Scotty Hopson threw a lazy entry pass, which Meeks promptly intercepted. Moments later, Kentucky led by 16.

Tennessee needs to learn all these things, and it needs to learn them quickly. The Vols’ next five conference opponents—South Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU, Florida, and Arkansas—are all beatable. Every team in the SEC is. But these five teams are also pretty dangerous.

If the Vols don’t right the ship soon, they’ll find themselves looking up at quite a few teams. Given that 2009 is such a down year for the SEC, they would be wise not to fall too far behind the eight-ball.