So what do you make of the Tennessee Volunteers? If you look at Tennessee's surprising fall from the national rankings, you can easily say they're a team that is battling Michigan State for the title of biggest underachiever of 2011. Relative to the expectations of their fan base and the national media it's been a rough year for the Vols.
But don't be suckered in to taking them lightly. They've got size and talent. They can be utterly electrifying from time to time. These guys average 70 points a game and pounded Pitt earlier in the year. Even so, the Vols have been somewhat of an enigma. Explosiveness, but when you watch them it's clear that there's something that's missing. For all the talent on the team, there isn't a consistent third scorer to support Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris. Where they get their production is on the glass. The Volunteers are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. They also generate points by aggressively playing the passing lanes to force turnovers and generate easy buckets. It's a bit of a double edged sword in that respect because when they gamble and miss, it turns into easy points for the opposition.
To an extent Tennessee reminds me a of Michigan State in that they're tall, athletic, and underachieved this season relative to their hype. They differ from the Spartans in two critical ways. From top to bottom Tennessee is a long, lanky team. Their wingspans are going to cause Michigan some trouble. As we've seen in close games this season, the Wolverines can make some sloppy entry passes or get careless at the top of the key. And this was against teams that didn't have the length that Tennessee has. It's going to be critical for the Wolverines to be careful with their entry passes and around the perimeter. Otherwise the Vols will run them out of the building.
The second exception is outside shooting. Tennessee is no where near as accomplished from the outside as the Spartans are. There is no Kalin Lucas on Tennessee. The Vols are shooting just 30% from three and their best three point shooter who sees any meaningful time is Scotty Hopson (37% from three). Everyone else hovers around 31% or below. As a result, Michigan should be able to double down low on Harris and Hopson without getting burnt too badly from the arc.
As I said on the Rock Top Talk Podcast, the key to this game (and the Michigan season, really) will be Michigan's outside shooting. And I'm not limiting this to three pointers. Michigan is going to get torched on the glass, but that's happened all season. So the key will be shooting well enough to allow Morris and Hardaway to slice into the lane. Smart passes, ball movement, and burying your opportunities. Basically the same game plan they used against Michigan State.
On the other end of the court the Wolverines will have to slow down the tempo of the game. Tennessee loves to run, but their half court offense can get pretty stagnant. Lots of double teams down low and a lot of player rotation in the post. Expect to see a lot of Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan. Maybe even a Blake McLimans sighting. But Michigan is going to have to stand their ground (as best they can) in the paint and force Tennessee to be a much better outside shooting team than the've been all season.
The only real player concern I have going into this was a some what quiet game from Tim Hardaway Jr against Ohio State in the BTT semis. I'm expecting a big bounce back game out of the talented freshman, but I suspect the size and length of Tennessee will give him a little bit of trouble just as it did against Illinois. As usual, the job of defending Tennessee's biggest player and/or most talented forward will fall on Zack Novak. Insert gritty and spunkiness comment here. In all seriousness though, after watching Zack frustrate the hell out of every big man not named Sullinger in the Big Ten all season I'll take him in any match up in the paint. Outside of that, I'm expecting Darius Morris to be Darius Morris. He got very frustrated by the lack of consistency out of the Big Ten refs in the semis, but won't have that excuse this time. He's got to play under control and continue to be Michigan's rudder on offense.
If there are two guys I'm really pulling for today they're Stu Douglass and Matt Vogrich. If either of these two can get hot and help to generate some offense it will take a lot of the pressure off of Hardaway, Morris and Morgan. Stu's never been shy of shooting, I just hope they finally start going in. As for Vogrich, he's really growing on me. He plays hard and hustles on defense and he seems to really understand how to use Beilein's screen system to get himself open for treys. He's developed very nicely this year and it would be great to see him have a monster day on the big stage.
Going into the game I really don't know what to expect. I see a pair of teams seemingly going in opposite directions. Michigan comes in riding a wave of success that's carried them from nowhere to the tournament. Tennessee's gone from being ranked in the top ten early in the season to sort of backing into the Tournament. And it's not like there's a lot of good new floating around their program. Tennessee's Athletic Director, on the verge of his team's "second" round game, told the assembled media that he wasn't sure if head coach Bruce Pearl would be around the next year. Really? You're doing that to your team now? Um... thanks?
Still, in terms of talent, Tennessee would seem to hold a considerable edge. McDonald's All-Americans, four stars, etc., etc. But Michigan has played against those guys all season, and more often than not, come away with wins. Michigan came from nowhere because it plays like a team, not like a collection of ball players. When you saw their name called on Selection Sunday, they celebrated like they play, together. And for the Wolverines to move on, they've have to do more of the same against Tennessee.