Game of the Week: No. 2 Tennessee at No. 1 Memphis (Saturday, 9:00 PM, ESPN)
No. 1 vs. No. 2. It’s the most sought-after match-up in college sports, and it seems to happen more rarely than most fans would want. However, the entire nation will get to see the top two-ranked teams – not necessarily the two “best” teams – go head-to-head in a battle to decide who will be No. 1 in the country next week. Memphis has been at or near the top of the polls all season, while Tennessee had been a solid top-ten squad for most of the year, but outstanding recent play combined with losses from other top-five teams left a gaping hole at No. 2. Luckily for the Vols – and ESPN – their ascent happened just in time to face intrastate rival Memphis in one of the most highly-anticipated non-conference match-ups in recent years.
Tennessee Team Breakdown
Tennessee came into the season as the heavy favorite to win the SEC, but struggled a little bit to open the season, getting obliterated by 19 on a neutral court against Tennessee. Since then, though, the Volunteers have been one of the best teams in the country, winning 19 of their last 20 games, with the lone loss coming at Kentucky. They own wins over Xavier, Gonzaga, West Virginia, Ohio State, as well as every postseason contender in the SEC. UT, the nation’s top-ranked team in the RPI, is ranked No. 10 in offensive efficiency and No. 27 in defensive efficiency.
The Volunteers have one of the deepest, most athletic squads in the country. It starts on the perimeter with All-America candidate Chris Lofton, a senior guard who had struggled shooting the ball for the first half of the season. However, in the last nine games, Lofton has knocked down over 49 percent of his three-point attempts and is averaging over 19 points per game. Flanking him is JaJuan Smith, a very good scorer and tremendous defensive player. Smith plays the passing lanes unbelievably well and has very quick hands. The two-headed point guard of Ramar Smith and Jordan Howell combines to average 13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists and just 3.2 turnovers per game. Smith is more of a scorer and playmaker, while Howell is a heady player who doesn’t turn the ball over. Former Arizona transfer J.P. Prince is the team’s fifth-leading scorer since becoming eligible in mid-December.
Up front, Tyler Smith has made an immediate impact after coming over from Iowa and contributes in a variety of ways. He leads the team in rebounds and assists, and is third in scoring; he might be the most indispensable player on the entire Vols’ roster. Wayne Chism is a good inside-outside scorer who needs to get tougher down low. His scoring is inconsistent, but he has improved as a rebounder throughout the course of the season. Duke Crews missed nine games due to a heart condition, but he is athletic and can finish around the rim. Freshman rebounder Brian Williams sees back-up minutes in the paint, while Ryan Childress is a decent inside-outside option but has seen just 12 minutes total over the last eight games.
Memphis Team Breakdown
Memphis was ranked as the preseason No. 1 in several polls, including mine, and the Tigers have not disappointed those that pegged them as the top team in the country. They are 26-0 and on the top of the rankings as the lone undefeated team in the country. Despite their mediocre in-conference slate, the Tigers made-up for it with non-league wins over Connecticut, Oklahoma, USC, Arizona, Gonzaga and Georgetown. They struggled slightly last week against Houston and UAB, but escaped with wins in both games. The Tigers are the nation’s most efficient defensive team, and also rank No. 28 in offensive efficiency.
Memphis has one of the best perimeter duos in the country in freshman point guard Derrick Rose and junior wing Chris Douglas-Roberts. Rose is a premier point guard although he tends to make freshmen mistakes at times. He came into college as an extremely highly-rated lead guard and has been one of the best playmakers in the country. Douglas-Roberts has become one of the better scorers in the nation with his ability to finish in a variety of ways. The Tigers had lacked a go-to scorer, but CDR has clearly stepped into that role. He is averaging almost 28 points per game in his last three contests. Antonio Anderson contributes in different ways, whether distributing and handling the ball, or knocking down three-pointers. Doneal Mack is a very good scorer who is fifth on the team in scoring despite ranking ninth in minutes. Willie Mack and Andre Allen see minutes off the bench; Mack is a good shooter and scorer, while Allen is a solid defender.
Up front, Memphis isn’t as deep but it still has plenty of talent and options. Robert Dozier has shown flashes of his potential but has not been consistent throughout the season. He can score in a variety of ways, by posting-up defenders or driving to the basket from the top of the key. Joey Dorsey might be the best defender-rebounder combination player in the country. He is an outstanding shot-blocker who can change games with his ability to defend. He also averages almost 11 rebounds per game, but has trouble with fouls. Offensively, he shoots almost 69 percent from the field but isn’t a consistent option. Shawn Taggart is a very solid scorer and rebounder who has shown flashes of his skill.
Game Analysis and Prediction
Despite the fact that it is only a non-conference game, don’t underestimate the importance of this game. Obviously, it is No. 1 vs. No. 2, which immediately makes it a must-see game. We have had some disappointing top-ranked games that haven’t lived up to the hype, but this one will be different. Both teams are in the mix for No. 1 seeds; Memphis might have one locked up already, but a win here would clinch it. Tennessee would take a huge step forward with a win over the undefeated Tigers on the road. It is going to be an up-and-down affair, as both teams love to push the ball to get transition points, and create offensive opportunities with their defense. The Volunteers shoot a lot of three-pointers and don’t often score many back-to-the-basket points. They are also adept at getting to the basket when defenders overplay the three-pointer. Memphis utilizes the AASAA offense, in which they constantly attack the basket until an open shot or driving opportunity presents itself. Like the Vols, they are primarily perimeter-oriented.
If Tennessee is going to head on the road and give Memphis its first loss of the season, it is going to need to get several things going in its favor. First, the Volunteers need to knock down their three-point shots. Memphis defends the three very well with its array of long and athletic perimeter players, but Tennessee will undoubtedly find open shots from beyond the arc. They will need to hit them. Chris Lofton has been hot from there lately, but nearly everyone in the lineup can shoot it. Secondly, although they need to knock down their three-pointers, they can’t settle for perimeter jumpshots and just rely on the three-ball to beat the Tigers. Tyler Smith is a match-up problem for Memphis, and he and Wayne Chism could accomplish a lot by simply drawing Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey away from the basket. That would open up driving and passing – Tennessee leads the nation in assists – lanes for Tennessee. Getting to the basket and going to the foul-line could be key. Dorsey has a tendency to get into foul trouble, and the Tigers lose a lot defensively when he is out of the game. At the other end of the floor, Tennessee needs to get Derrick Rose to turn the ball over. He is an outstanding player, but he also turns the ball over a decent amount against pressure. Getting turnovers and points in transition will ease a lot of the things Tennessee needs to do. Also, Tennessee needs to be sure to grab defensive rebounds. Memphis is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, while the Volunteers are not very good on the defensive glass. Limiting second-chances and multiple opportunities for Memphis would be huge.
On the other side, if Memphis is going to pass its toughest test of the season and continue to march towards an undefeated season, it will need to do a variety of things. Offensively, it needs to take care of the ball and not allow Tennessee to get going in transition for easy baskets. Rose is strong enough to break the press himself, but he can’t try to do too much. Making the easy pass and settling down the offense once the Tigers get past the press would be ideal. Although Memphis also likes getting up-and-down the court, its half-court game is much more effective than Tennessee’s half-court offense and defense are. Furthermore, Memphis needs to hit its three-pointers, but not take too many of them. The Tigers take plenty of long-range shots and are not all that impressive from deep. They shoot just 34 percent from beyond the arc, while Tennessee holds teams to just 29 percent from three-point range. That doesn’t bode well for Memphis, which needs to utilize its size advantage on the wings and inside to get baskets inside the arc. The Volunteers don’t defend two-points all that well; they are certainly vulnerable if the Tigers take the ball to the basket. Defensively, Memphis has to extend its half-court defense and not allow any of Tennessee’s three-point shooters to get hot from deep. Lofton has been hitting his threes, but if the Smiths and even Chism start knocking down threes, Memphis will be in trouble. Lastly, Dorsey needs to stay on the floor. He has the ability to make a difference at both ends of the floor, especially against a team like Tennessee that struggles to defend big men down low and also have small guards that have a tendency to get their shots blocked inside.
Once it became apparent that Memphis was not going to lose and Tennessee should run away with the SEC, everyone circled Saturday on their calendars. With all the hype and anticipation, the only thing we can do it hope it doesn’t disappoint. It won’t. Not with two of the most fun-to-watch teams in the country and two of the best coaches – John Calipari of Memphis and Bruce Pearl of Tennessee – in the land roaming the sidelines. The difference will be Memphis’ edge down low and the Tigers’ homecourt advantage. If Rose can handle the pressure and Dorsey stays out of foul trouble, expect yet another Memphis win.
Prediction: Memphis 86, Tennessee 82