Tennessee turns season around
Tennessee responded to star Tyler Smith's dismissal with its best game
The challenge for Tennessee will be to continue playing with high energy
Kansas is not at its best when it is not using its talented frontcourt
Five thoughts on No. 16 Tennessee's 76-68 upset of No. 1 Kansas on Sunday in Knoxville ...
1. This could be a season-altering win for the Volunteers. Friday had to have been the worst day of coach Bruce Pearl's tenure at the school -- he had to dismiss senior star Tyler Smith following an incident in which he and reserves Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams were arrested in a New Year's Day traffic stop for possessing handguns, marijuana and open alcohol, the news of which tainted the program's national image. I thought the Volunteers might go in the tank after losing Smith, their assist leader and primary playmaker, and with three key backups indefinitely suspended. Instead, on Sunday, they played inspired basketball, delivering one of the most meaningful wins in program history. Pearl and assistants Steve Forbes and Tony Jones were visibly relieved as they hugged each other after the buzzer sounded, and then went and saluted the home crowd for staying behind the team. While this upset wasn't entirely a heartwarming story -- Tennessee still has players facing weapons and drug charges, after all -- it was a message that this may not be a lost season in Knoxville.
2. Can the Vols sustain this level of post-scandal energy? In the short-term, teams tend to rally around the loss of a key player, and Tennessee certainly did that on Sunday, receiving a number of huge, unexpected performances from bit players. Senior point guard Bobby Maze had by far his best game of the season, dishing out eight assists against just two turnovers, and scoring 16 points. Sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge, who'd previously been better-known as a rapper -- check out his Tip Off (College Game Time) YouTube -- jumped into the starting lineup in Smith's place and shot 4-of-6 from long range for a season-high 14 points. And freshman shooting guard Skylar McBee, a walk-on, delivered the dagger three-pointer in the final minute to become an improbable hero. The Vols will likely be ranked in the top 10 in Monday's polls, but can they stay there with a rotation that includes three walk-ons (McBee, Stephen Pearl and Josh Bone)?
3. My biggest concern regarding the Jayhawks is that they're severely under-using center Cole Aldrich. In a game where the Vols started a lineup with just one post player, 6-foot-9 power forward Wayne Chism, and then only had Chism on the floor for 19 minutes due to foul trouble, how can Aldrich take only five field-goal attempts? The preseason All-American played 30 minutes and had just five shots and two free-throw attempts, which is unacceptable.
4. Kansas' Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, have been largely absent from the past two games. They combined for five points against Cornell and seven against Tennessee, after averaging a combined 17.9 on the season. Senior point guard Sherron Collins is still one of the better clutch players in the country, but KU isn't at its best when he's taking 20 shots to score 22 points, and not working the ball inside. I had speculated earlier this week that the Jayhawks were the elite team that would be least-vulnerable to zone defenses, but Pearl employed a 2-3 and watched the Jayhawks shoot just 7-for-27 from long range while failing to drive-and-dish to the Morrises or Aldrich.
5. Texas should be the new No. 1 on Monday. I imagine there will be an 80-20 or 70-30 split between the Longhorns and Kentucky in the next polls, with the edge going to Texas due to a slightly superior resume. Its neutral-court win over Pittsburgh from November looks better now that the Panthers are 3-0 in the Big East; the 'Horns have also beaten Michigan State and USC at home, and North Carolina on a semi-neutral court. Kentucky's body of work isn't bad -- it includes neutral wins over Stanford and UConn, and home wins over North Carolina and Louisville -- but the 'Cats will likely have to settle for No. 2, and hope the 'Horns falter on the road against Kansas State (on Jan. 18) or UConn (Jan. 23).
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