The Tennessee basketball team (8-4) has just one non-conference game left to play before embarking on its grueling, 18-game Southeastern Conference gauntlet next week. The final pre-conference tune-up comes Saturday at 2 p.m. ET when the Volunteers welcome Tusculum College (1-11) to Thompson-Boling Arena.
Saturday’s game matches the programs of the two oldest colleges in the state, as both were founded in 1794. Tusculum, an NCAA Division II institution located in Greeneville, Tenn., was founded just a few weeks prior to UT.
The Volunteers enter Saturday’s clash riding the momentum of consecutive overpowering victories against Morehead State (Dec. 23) and Virginia (Dec. 30). Tennessee outscored those two teams by a combined total of 50 points while boasting an offensive output of 84.5 points per game.
While meeting with local reporters Thursday, senior forward Jeronne Maymon credited the team’s recent efficiency to the effectiveness of the coaching staff’s scouting reports.
“When watch film (of past games, head coach Cuonzo) Martin usually points out ‘You could made this pass,’ or ‘You could have done this,’ even if the shot does go in,” Maymon said. “He’s always bringing things to our attention – the next play, the next pass, look for your teammates, make sure you get them involved. That stuff has really been helping us a lot during games.”
Martin told reporters that while the teaching points are crucial, making sure they are absorbed and understood is just as important.
“Well the first thing is, you have to be locked in,” Martin said. “We spend so many hours doing scout reports and game-planning to give us the best chance to win games. It’s just a matter of (the players) carrying out those assignments. Other teams make adjustments, (too). But when you stick to the script, you give yourself a chance to win the game.”
Tennessee certainly stuck to its scouting script against Virginia Monday, posting the largest margin of victory of Martin’s tenure on Rocky Top (35 points).
“In the two practices leading up to that game, we played really well and brought the intensity,” Maymon said. “We were all locked in and focused on our assignments. We took the scout very serious and ended up in good position. We were clicking on all cylinders.”
After Saturday’s game against Tusculum, the Vols’ scouting reports will take on even higher significance since the SEC schedule presents games at such a fast pace. Teams typically play two games per week, sometimes with just two days of rest in-between.
ASSISTS ARE UP
Tennessee has racked up 38 assists in its last two outings – both convincing wins – and is averaging 12.0 assists per game this year.
Through 12 games last season, the Big Orange were averaging 10.4 assists.
Several players have been playing the role of setup man for the Vols this season, as six different players average more than one assist per game. In addition to leading the team in scoring and blocked shots, senior guard Jordan McRae boasts a team-best 2.7 assists per game.
Martin points to several reasons for the team’s recent rise in assists, but spacing is paramount among them.
“It’s being ready to shoot the ball, being ready to drive the ball, attacking the rim, good post feeds… but it’s our spacing, more than anything,” Martin said. “We spend a lot of time on trying to improve our spacing so guys can either dribble penetrate, feed the post, drive to the rim and keep that spacing. But at the end of the day, you have to make the shot.”
In UT’s eight wins, the team dishes out an average of 13.4 assists. That number dips to 9.3 in Tennessee’s four losses.
Six of the top-eight players in Tennessee’s rotation have more assists than turnovers so far this year.
SCOUTING THE PIONEERS
Tusculum is off to a 1-11 start under third-year head coach Michael Jones. The Pioneers’ lone win was a 110-106 Nov. 15 triumph over Trevecca Nazarene at the Carson-Newman Classic in Jefferson City, Tenn.
The Pioneers returned 83 percent of their scoring and rebounding from last year’s squad, which posted a 6-21 record. But so far this year, Tusculum has seen seven players miss a combined 36 games due to injury.
The Tusculum roster features four East Tennessee natives, including starters Cory Fagan (Oak Ridge, Oak Ridge HS) and Matt Shown (Knoxville, Alcoa HS).
Though the Vols have hosted three exhibition games vs. Tusculum in the last decade (2004, 2006, 2008), UT has not faced the Pioneers in a regular-season game since Dec. 15, 1944.
In regular-season action, Tennessee leads its all-times series with Tusculum 10-2. Those meetings all took place between 1911-44.
TUSCULUM WON’T FACTOR INTO TENNESSEE’S RPI
Monday’s game is an exhibition game for Tusculum, but it is a regular-season contest for Tennessee.
Division II teams are able to schedule a maximum of 28 regular-season games and two exhibition outings. The Pioneers previously played an exhibition against Notre Dame on Nov. 1. Monday’s game will be Tusculum’s second and final exhibition this season.
For Tennessee, while the game’s result and all statistics will count toward its season totals, there is one difference between the Tusculum contest and UT’s 30 other regular-season games – it will not factor into the Vols’ official NCAA RPI.
The RPI – short for Ratings Percentage Index – has been used by the NCAA men’s basketball committee since 1981 as a supplemental set of data to help select at-large teams and seed all teams for the NCAA Tournament. The three primary factors in a team’s RPI are a) the team’s Division I winning percentage; b) a team’s opponents’ Division I winning percentage; and c) a team’s opponents’ opponents’ Division I winning percentage.
So as far as the computation of Tennessee’s official NCAA RPI is concerned, Monday’s game will not be taken into account.
Many Division I programs have begun scheduling one regular-season game against a Division II opponent as a way to avoid the “RPI hit” that is often associated with facing a Division I team with a poor RPI (in many instances, even winning such a game can still have a negative effect on a team’s RPI).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)