When: November 24th, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
TV: ESPN2, ESPN3.com
There is something about Madison Square Garden that provokes sheer awe in all who enter. The Garden is cavernous yet endearing. It is here that the legends of basketball past whisper in the deafening silence. Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Reggie Miller and a who’s who of the greatest to ever play the game walked this floor. Through 4 incarnations of the arena, it has become a symbol of the city of New York and synonymous with big-time basketball. For years this was the site of the national championship of NCAA men’s basketball. The history in the air is so thick you can almost breathe it in. 4 teams have earned the right to play on this floor next week; VCU is one of them.
It is here, on this hallowed ground that VCU will take on its greatest challenge of the season to date. The Rams will take on SEC-power Tennessee led by Coach Bruce Pearl whose Vols are ranked #24 (AP) in the nation. This Preseason NIT Tip-Off Semifinal game will be played on national television under the bright lights of MSG with a shot at the championship game at stake.
Questions have swirled about VCU from fans both within the program and outside of it. Will the Rams be worse off without first-round NBA draft pick Larry Sanders? Does VCU have the frontcourt depth to truly compete with the best in the land? Can these seniors win the big one without Eric Maynor? Those Rams have the opportunity to prove itself to the nation on the biggest of basketball stages with some of the most recognizable programs in college basketball. The first test comes in the form of the Vols.
The Tennessee Tradition:
This is your perpetual David vs. Goliath matchup as far as name recognition and history of success goes. Tennessee has twice as many NCAA appearances (18 to VCU’s 9) and 16 wins in those appearances (to VCU’s 5), including a head-to-head 2nd-round victory in 1981. The Vols prevailed in overtime by a 58-56 score, a nail-biter that many older Ram fans still remember. The 2009-2010 Vols advanced to the Elite 8 last year, losing by 1 point to Michigan State on a foul shot with 1.8 seconds remaining and a spot in the Final Four on the line. In comparison the Rams missed out on both the NCAA’s and the NIT, winning the 3rd -tier CBI postseason tournament. Tennessee has also produced a number of NBA players including Ernie Grunfield, Bernard King, Dale Ellis, Larry Robinson, and Allan Houston, who ironically enough dazzled crowds on the very floor the Rams and Vols will be facing off on in a couple of days.
The 2010-2011 Vols:
Head Coach Bruce Pearl did a remarkable job building the Tennessee program from mediocrity under Coach Buzz Peterson (who now subsequently coaches in the same conference as VCU at UNC Wilmington) to a team that was within a basket of the Final Four last year. In the last 5 seasons the Vols have made the Big Dance and made the Sweet Sixteen 3 of those years. The program has made great strides since 2005 when Pearl took the reins in Knoxville.
The program has recently been rocked by allegations of NCAA violations by Coach Pearl and a subsequent NCAA investigation into the Tennessee program is being conducted. ToÂ exacerbate matters it appears that Pearl lied to NCAA investigators. The school came down hard on Pearl in hopes of lightening any punishment from the NCAA, taking 1.5 million dollars of Coach Pearl’s salary away over the next 5 years. He has also been banned from off-campus recruiting for one year. His contract has been voided and he and Tennessee are in negotiations on a new one. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive also gave the SEC’s punishment on the matter by suspending him from taking part in the first 8 conference games of the season. The NCAA has yet to release their findings and any possible sanctions/punishments that may result from it. Regardless of the NCAA’s eventual ruling, Tennessee’s image in the college basketball world has taken a little bit of a hit and Pearl’s future at the school is somewhat in question. It appears for the time being that the school will keep Pearl as it’s head coach, but both Pearl and the program will be the source of swirling controversy this season.
While the distraction looms over this season, the Vols still have a pretty good team. They lost 3 starters off their Elite 8 team from a year ago but are still a top 25 team to start the 2010-2011 season. Their biggest loss is probably forward Wayne Chism who was the leading rebounder and averaged a team-best 12.6 ppg last season. He was one of the better defenders on the 2009-2010 squad. While they lost a very good player, they bring in a pretty skilled McDonald’s All-American in Tobias Harris (pictured above) to help fill the void made by Chism’s departure. The tough 6’8 forward will be making a homecoming to New York next week and is a very skilled and versatile player who has shown great ability in the last couple of games. Coach Pearl has stated that he will be trying to get the freshman more touches in the games to come. He is a match-up problem with his impressive speed and strength and his ability to spread the floor with his jumper.
6’10, 290-pound behemoth Brian Williams (pictured right) is the only true center on the squad and is expected to step up in Chism’s absence as well. So far he has not been stellar (3.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg), but that is probably attributable to the fast pace at which the Vols play. It’s tough for a 290-pound big man to run the floor as much as the Vols do and still be able to contribute significantly. With the pace both teams want to play, I doubt Williams plays much of a factor in the game. The depth for Tennessee in the front-court is impressive as Reynaldo Woolridge, Marquette-transfer Jeronne Maymon, Steven Pearl, and John Fields (formerly of UNCW) all come off of the bench. While VCU has depth as far as numbers, it is inexperienced. Juvonte Reddic and DJ Haley will have to grow up a little and play beyond their experience to help out Jamie Skeen and Toby Veal in the front-court.
In the backcourt, the Vols lost JP Prince and Bobby Maze and have asked backup point guard Melvin Goins (5.3 ppg and 1.8 apg in’09-’10, pictured left) to step up this year.Â The 5’11 San Diego-native has answered the call and is averaging 7 points and 2 assists per game so far this season. Those stats are somewhat skewed since he went out with a bruise injury in the middle of Tennessee’s first Preseason NIT game against Belmont. He did not play against Missouri State (true freshman Trae Golden performed duties at the 1 for that game), but should be ready to go for next week’s tilt with the Rams. He’s quite quick and loves to get out in transition, a statement that can be generalized to include most of Tennessee’s roster. They run, run, and run. The Vols have impressive athleticism and speed and they use those tools to overwhelm their opponents.
The team’s designated sharp-shooter (if you had to choose one) is probably Cameron Tatum (pictured right). He was a 39% 3-point shooter and 48% overall from the field. He will be asked to step up his scoring this season and with his smooth stroke, he will be depended on to hit some big shots for the Vols before the season is over. Another McDonald’s All-American is explosive junior wing Scotty Hopson (pictured below). Along with Tobias Harris they form a deadly combination that will pose serious problems for a lot of opponents this year. Hopson averaged 12.2 ppg last season but has somewhat disappointed Vols fans who were hoping he might be more productive coming out of high school. He is still a very dangerous player and a tough defensive assignment slashing to the rim. Turnovers are an issue for Hopson, another issue which can be generalized to describe much of the Tennessee squad this early in the season.
The Vols do not take care of the basketball and turn it over far more than Bruce Pearl would probably like to see. In 3 games Tennessee already has 51 turnovers (to just 37 assists). This is something that the Rams will have to exploit if they want to pull off the upset. Playing 40 minutes of full-court pressure every game helps the Rams in this regard. Since the Rams employ 4 different presses (including the diamond press that was so effective in the 2nd half of the Wake Forest game), you can bet a big part of the plan is to pressure Goins and Golden from the tip. The Rams boast 66 assists to just 37 turnovers and Shaka Smart will need Joey Rodriguez and Darius Theus to continue their strong play from the point guard spot in running the offense and creating opportunities for their teammates to get good shots. The Rams’ real weakness so far has been their free-throw shooting. If their 3-point shot doesn’t fall as it has been for the last 3 games and they are not able to establish a viable post game with Jamie Skeen and Toby Veal, it may come down to free throws. The Rams will have to improve in that regard.
Tennessee usually likes to out-run their opponents, but they may have been matched up with a team that relishes the opportunity to run just as much. Both teams weaker points revolve around their half-court defense. With both teams running, this game is sure to be a shootout with a scores probably in the 80’s-90’s if not higher. Tennessee relies on the 3-pointer as well although they don’t shoot it quite as well as the Rams do at this point of the season. It will be interesting to see who wins the battle of the running teams. If anything the game should be a very entertaining, high-scoring affair. The team who shoots better from 3 and takes care of the ball will likely win.
This is a young Tennessee team chock full of talent but still trying to find its identity. The Vols have shown vulnerability against 2 mid-major opponents in the first two games of the Tip-Off, winning by single digits against both Belmont and Missouri State. The third time will be the charm as VCU takes advantage of the Vols’ propensity to turn the ball over.Â The Rams will rideÂ the hot 3-point shooting ofÂ guards Brandon Rozzell, Joey Rodriguez, and Brad Burgess. VCU crashes the BCS party in NYC and advances to the finals with a 94-89 victory.