The Wednesday night bout between No. 1 Tennessee and Vanderbilt was an overtime thriller.
The top-ranked Vols were trying to defend their new ranking for the second time in school history. Their first attempt failed nearly 11 years ago in the same arena. However, the teams that met in Memorial Gym this week are much different than their respective programs a decade ago. Vanderbilt came into the contest one game over .500 and winless in conference play. This Tennessee squad was poised to preserve a historic win streak and honor the crown of being the best team in the country by avenging the defeat from 2008.
The game provided some remarkable moments typical of a rivalry, highlighted by one element that seems to be sticking with the Vols. Here are the trends we learned from the battle.
Different Game, Same Bone
Tennessee is one of the most efficient teams in the nation. In terms of offensive field goal percentage, they rank the highest. The Vols submit opponents by carefully running their sets and picking their spots. The unselfish nature of the team allows them to strike from any position, depending on the match-up. There are talented scorers and capable weapons, yet the head of this python is Jordan Bone.
Bone’s speed, especially in transition, keeps the defense on its heels. The point guard has been tremendous dating back to the Samford game. He has two or fewer turnovers to go along with five or more assists in every game since.
It seems as if he has progressed as competition has increased. Bone has 37 assists to just six turnovers in conference play. On Wednesday, the Nashville native had 14 points, seven assists and zero turnovers to quietly lead the Vols’ potent offense.
As efficient as their offense has been, the defense is starting to draw some concerns. They still rank in the top 50 or so in terms of their defensive efficiency, but they have been backsliding in that department. Tennessee was in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency for the majority of the year. That balance is starting to shift now that the SEC slate is well underway.
Giving up easy baskets has been a trend. The ineffective defense in the Vanderbilt game is probably the best example:
Tennessee’s interior defense has been brutal. 13 of Vandy’s 19 shot attempts have been layups or dunks; they’ve made 6 of the last 7.
— Will Warren (@gyrateplus) January 24, 2019
Is Tennessee just getting the best from opponents? Or is there a serious issue with ball pressure and contesting shots?
9 of 15 from three by Vandy. They hadn’t hit more than SEVEN in a game in 2019.
— Will Warren (@gyrateplus) January 24, 2019
Regardless of the reason, teams are starting to feast on plays where back screens put the Vols at a disadvantage. Rick Barnes’ unwillingness to counter with any kind of zone continues to expose some bad match-ups. On Wednesday, Vandy saw Lamonte Turner pitted against a cutting Simisola Shittu on several occasions. This was an area that coach Bryce Drew took advantage of, especially in the first half.
The second half and beyond saw heavy doses of Vanderbilt’s Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith making shots from everywhere. The two finished the game with a combined 45 points, while going 7-of-12 shooting from 3-point range.
The man-to-man defense of Tennessee has yet to fully collapse. The good news is their players are being forced to guard, even against bad match-ups. So far, they have persevered without breaking. The bad news is there is no shut-down defender. There isn’t a liability on defense either, but the No. 1 team in the land will continue to get everyone’s best. The lack of contested shots needs to be addressed in some fashion before this trend costs them.
Williams Becomes a Legend
There is no secret that the story of the game was the performance of Grant Williams. The reigning SEC Player of the Year had a career game. It wasn’t just any great outing. Wednesday’s showcase will be the subject of Tennessee basketball lore for ages.
Williams had a career-high 43 points. He set an SEC record by going 23-of-23 from the free throw line. Oh, and he also managed to grab eight rebounds, something that needed to be addressed after notching just two in the previous game against Alabama.
The 43 points were good for fifth all-time in school history. While others struggled, Williams answered the bell. When there was an opening, he scored to the tune of 10-of-15 from the field. When there wasn’t a seam, he earned trips to the charity stripe. Williams’ 23 attempts out-shot Vandy’s 21 tries as a team. The Charlotte native scored 10 of Tennessee’s 12 points in overtime.
The Vols forward is having an All-American season. He could become Tennessee’s first selection since Chris Lofton. The Vols haven’t had a first-team member since Dale Ellis in 1983, a mark that is likely to change this year.
Considering the junior could potentially play another season, he might finish his Tennessee career with more than just hardware. At least one former Vol thinks he could a very special group:
Said it before, that #2 gonna be in the rafters in Thompson Boling Arena…
— Dane Bradshaw (@DaneBradshaw) January 24, 2019
Despite many All-Americans, there are only four Tennessee jerseys that hang from the rafters in Thompson-Boling Arena. If Williams continues this path, a fifth will be added to the collection in the future.
As much as Tennessee fans loved seeing Williams dominate, they also relished the opportunity to celebrate victory over an in-state rival.
In reality, Vanderbilt fans should be thankful that the Vols recognize this bout as a rivalry. Out of the 196 meetings between the schools, Tennessee has now won 121. The Vols have also won five out of the last six.
The Commodores have taken advantage of favorable timing by winning five of seven games on the football field, but that’s about as close they can get to relevancy in the SEC when it comes to high-revenue sports. But, hey, everyone is bound to see a solar eclipse in a lifetime, right?
Despite what some Vandy fans pose, the out-of-this-world performance by Williams was no blip. It’s understandable to be frustrated when you are used to losing more than sixty percent of the time in the two sports that matter most to the state. What some Vandy fans suggested after this basketball classic was just dumb.
Many complained about the flagrant-1 foul late in the game that resulted in a four-point swing for Tennessee. Others said Tennessee, along with Williams, is “overrated” as Wednesday’s performance was a fluke.
I guess when you get every ticky tack foul call I guess so Tennessee is overrated
— Marc (@MarcHughes60) January 24, 2019
Even if you take away all of Williams’ free throw makes, he still gets his season average of 20. He has 80 points against the Commodores in the past two meetings at Memorial Gym, supposedly the home of the ‘Dores.
You can make an argument it’s the home of Williams, if not the home-away-from-home for the University of Tennessee. The bleachers appeared to be filled with orange. Judging by the sound in the background during the waning minutes of the game, it sure sounded like a home environment for the Vols:
they're chanting 'It's Great to be a Tennessee Vol' with 5.4 seconds left in overtime.
Tennessee trailed 76-70 with 1:32 left in regulation. Then Grant Williams said fine I'll do it.
— @GrantRamey (@GrantRamey) January 24, 2019
Vanderbilt fans aren’t alone, though. The reaction from ‘Dores fans after the Tennessee loss is in line with other responses from Tennessee victims.
Against Memphis, Tennessee was accused being “disrespectful.” Barnes was ripping the NBA according to Penny Hardaway. Vols players were labeled as antagonists, wanting to “fight” instead of play basketball.
The same stereotypes were thrown around when the Vols won at Florida. Their mocking of the Gator Chomp was deemed “classless” by the Florida fan base.
On Wednesday, the Vols received more criticism.
But who or what is at fault for Tennessee?
Criticism of officiating happens on a nightly basis. But to bash Williams is just silly. Vandy fans can harp on the fouls just as Tennessee fans can complain about Shittu traveling halfway back to Knoxville (only called once). The flagrant-1 call was correct by letter of the law. If Williams sold it, then he risked his whole body doing it.
The bottom line is that in the midst of a heated college basketball game, stars tend to rise to the occasion. Officiating can be bad, shooters miss and a typically good defense can turn bad.
The one constant, unstoppable force in this game was Williams. A player with a 33 efficiency rating just posted a 50 PER on Vanderbilt’s court.
Hate him or love him, Williams’ dominating play can’t be overlooked. Some basketball minds are in denial of Tennessee’s presence among the elite in college basketball, choosing instead to be as salty as the popcorn left behind in Memorial last year.
You really hate to see it.
Godspeed Vandy fans. The Vols will see you again at their primary residence in Knoxville on Feb. 19.