We're now just 24-hours away from perhaps the most anticipated Louisville basketball game since 2005. Form has held, and last week's potential showcase game of the Sweet 16 has become this week's official (unofficially) showcase game of the Sweet 16.
So let's take a closer look at the only thing standing (figuratively) between Louisville and the Elite Eight: the Tennessee Volunteers.
We'll start by examining the things the Vols do well:
1. Score in Transition
This is both the most obvious and most important weapon in UT's mixed bag of armaments.
We've heard all season about teams being forced to prepare to handle Louisville's athletes, and now the tables have finally turned, because the Cards haven't faced a group as naturally gifted as Tennessee all season.
What makes the Vols so dangerous on the run is that their "big guys" are so versatile. Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince are all at least 6-7, but each can handle the ball, and all three (especially Smith) are able passers. Not only does this allow for them to find each other on the break for easy flushes, but it allows both Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith to spot up on the perimeter and get easy looks that they'd never see in a halfcourt possession.
All that said, Tennessee probably hasn't seen a team as big and athletic as Louisville since its showdown with then No. 1 Memphis. The Vols won that game, but were held to 66 points (16 below their season average) and 37.5% shooting from the field (9% below their season average).
It'd be foolish to hope for the Cards to eliminate any and all fast-break scoring tomorrow night, but Louisville should do a better job getting back on D than 90% of the teams UT has played this year, especially since they were forced to be so cognizant of recovering against Boise State just six days ago.
2. Shoot the Ball
The Vols rank eighth in the country in field goals made, partly because they get so many easy buckets on the break and out of their sets, but they also have the second-best shooter in the country in Chris Lofton, and a secondary deep threat in JaJuan Smith (38.8%). In addition to those two, Wayne Chism, Tyler Smith and Jordan Howell (in spite of his recent slump) are all highly capable of knocking down the outside jumper if left open. In all, 38.8% of Tennessee's field goal attempts this season have come from behind the three-point line.
But just like we talked about with Boise State last week, and just like we've talked about with Louisville all season, UT does not shoot nearly as well when the shots they're taking are contested. The Cards have got to close out on open shooters on the wings, and T-Will and Earl both have to be very conscious of guys spotting up in either corner, something they haven't done well in recent weeks.
3. Get Second-Chance Points
Tennessee goes as hard on the offensive glass as any team in the country. They rank 12th in the country in total offensive rebounds with 377, and 21st in offensive rebounds per game with 14. In their round one victory over American, the Vols snagged 18 offensive boards and scored 16 second-chance points.
After seeing what DeJuan Blair and Tyrell Biggs did to us on the offensive glass in each of the Pitt games, I think it's safe to say that this is a major concern.
4. Defend the Inbounds Pass
After watching them play a few times, it seemed to me like Tennessee really turned its defense up when teams were trying to throw the ball inbound. But I did a little digging just to make sure that I wasn't reading too much into something insignificant. Turns out that in its last 70 games, UT has forced 289 total turnovers, 53 timeouts and 28 five-second calls when teams are trying to throw the ball inbounds.
Now this would be less of a concern if Louisville's out-of-bounds plays weren't what Charlie Rose once referred to as "the most boring thing I've ever seen on television." The Cards don't do anything particularly intricate when trying to get the ball inbounds, and are generally content to simply chuck the ball into the hands of a point guard standing in the backcourt. This might not get it done against the Vols, and that could become a major factor if the game comes down to one or two possessions.
5. Share the Ball
Tennessee has the reputation of a team chock-full of one-on-one players who would rather listen to Diamond Rio for 24-hours straight than give the ball up on the fast break. In reality, little could be further from the truth.
The Volunteers rank second in the country in total assists (613), second in assist-to-turnover ratio (+ 1.4), and sixth in assists per game (18). Four Vols average more than two assists per game, led by Tyler Smith's 3.6. Louisville, conversely, has just one player averaging more than two: Terrence Williams, who averages 4.6.
Your team can have all the athletes in the world, and they still won't be able to run the fast break successfully if there aren't at least a couple of guys in that bunch who can pass the ball. Tennessee has more than a couple, and it's one of the main reasons they're one of the 16 teams still playing.
6. Apply Ball Pressure
Louisville is a pressing team that has rarely been pressed this season, but that won't be the case Thursday night. The Vols don't apply backcourt pressure as consistently as the Cards do, but they do enough to warrant attention. When UT does press, it's generally a man press that will trap if the ball is thrown into either corner, or just force the point guard to bring the ball up the floor with a defender hawking every dribble. This is where having two capable floor generals who play about the same number of minutes each night becomes a huge blessing.
While Tennessee has garnered the reputation of a team that would just as soon not run down to the other end of the floor after a made basket, they actually rank seventh in the country in steals (318), and tenth in steals per game (9.4). The Vols are forcing 18.2 turnovers per game, and are averaging 21.5 ppg off of those turnovers.
Dribbling into the corner, making cross-court passes and holding the ball out in front of you are all things U of L might want to avoid in this game.
7. Finish Alley-Oops
Unlike Louisville, which has gone (unofficially) 3-for-74 on alley-oops this season, the Vols are particularly apt and throwing and finishing lobs. Again, they're like, all athletic, and stuff.
Apparently my nine-year-old self scored this video
And now the increasingly popular what Tennessee does not do well:
1. Defend the Post
It's not that Crews, Chism and Tyler Smith are particularly bad on-ball defenders, it's just that they're relatively undersized, and don't do a good job of forcing bigger post players to catch the ball away from the basket. Crews and Chism must keep David Padgett from being able to catch, turn, and make a three-foot baby hook, or the big guy could have 20 early in the second half. Tyler Smith will likely be assigned the equally difficult task of bottling up the taller and longer Earl Clark.
Everyone knows that Tennessee can score points, but if they allow these two guys to get easy shots in the paint all night, then even the Vols might not have the offensive firepower to mount a comeback.
2. Defend in Transition
Tennessee has nearly every team it faces out-athleted (word), and yet they've really struggled all season with allowing opponents to get easy fast-break buckets. I think a lot of this relates directly to how effective they've been on the offensive glass. Sure it's nice to have a 6-7 point guard who can get you two-points on a put-back with a certain degree of regularity, but when a guy in orange doesn't come up with the board and your floor general is stuck underneath the opponent's basket, who's going to prevent an easy lay-up on the other end?
Louisville scored at least 12 points in transition against Oklahoma, and while they might not have quite as much success on Thursday, they should still be able to steal three or four easy scores.
3. Rebound on Defense
There's really no excuse for a team that rebounds as well on offense as Tennessee does to not put up at least somewhat similar statistics on the other end of the floor, and so I guess the Volunteers really don't have an excuse for being the 126th-best (23.7 per game) defensive rebounding team in the country. Allowing 18 second-chance points against Memphis nearly got them beat a month ago, and then surrendering 14 in the SEC semifinals against Arkansas did the trick two weeks later.
Louisville is an above-average offensive rebounding team that will most certainly take advantage if UT's five on the floor are standing around while a shot's in the air. In a game that appears as even on paper as this one, the winner and loser might very well come down to the team that best takes advantage of its multi-shot possessions.
4. Have a Point Guard
Point guard play has been on the "doesn't do well" list in the previous two games and has worked out pretty well for the Cards, but this is a bit different.
J.P. Prince will be making his second consecutive - and second ever - start at the point for Tennessee on Thursday. He doesn't handle the ball particularly well, especially with his right hand, but his 6-7 height should allow him to see over the points on the press and find a comparably-skilled ballhandler in the middle of the floor. Once they get into the halfcourt, UT is much like the 2005 Louisville team in that it doesn't really matter who starts their flex offense.
Ramar Smith, likely Bruce Pearl's most gifted ballhandler, will serve as the backup floor general, and might actually play the majority of the game if the Prince-experiment goes sour early. Senior Jordan Howell, who has started more games at point guard than any other player on the team, is in the midst of a 4-for-40 shooting slump and will likely see limited action unless he comes into the game and hits a couple of shots in a row.
Prince has been turnover-prone at times this season, and gave the ball away six times against Butler. If he looks shaky early then I'd expect the excitable Ramar Smith to be the guy asked to bring the ball down the floor for the rest of the night.
5. Avoid Taking Unnecessary Risks on Defense
Tennessee has several extremely skilled ball defenders, but where they get into trouble is when they have guys gambling at times when there's no reason to. A prime example came late in regulation of last Sunday's win over Butler. With the shot-clock running down and the Bulldogs scrambling to get a shot off, Ramar Smith tried to jump out and pick off a short pass to Mike Green at the top of the key. He wasn't even close and Green buried a three to tie the game up.
UT has the same problem that Louisville does sometimes when it plays man, which is over-helping. Too often when guards get penetration against Tennessee, multiple players will slide over to help, leaving good shooters wide open on the wings, and big men wide open underneath the basket.
This is a game where we really need Good Edgar. He's our most capable penetrator, and if he can get a step or two on Smith or Howell or whoever, then he should be able to make relatively easy passes to our guards for open threes or to our bigs for easy jams.
6. Shoot Free-Throws
Tennessee has the SEC's best free-throw shooter in Chris Lofton (83.2%), which makes it even more amazing that they only shoot 65.8% from the line as a team. Duke Crews (65.4%), Ramar Smith (61.8%), J.P. Prince (55.8%) and Wayne Chism (54.2%) are all solid candidates to send to the stripe in late-game situations.
I'd also like to make special mention of Prince, who for some reason shoots his free-throws three steps to the right of the rim. It'd be acceptable if he shot a solid, or even decent percentage, but he doesn't, he shoots 55.8%. Maybe you should try starting in the middle of the line like the rest of the world. At this point I'd say it couldn't hurt.
7. Stay Out of Foul Trouble
Only ten teams have committed more fouls than the Vols, and their average of 20.5 fouls per game is 45th worst in the country. Forward Wayne Chism is a particularly generous contributor to those statistics, which we'll talk about later.
8. Have Rick Pitino as Their Head Coach
Bruce Pearl has done an amazing job at Tennessee, but I'm not sold on his ability to make the moves necessary to pull out a tight game in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. See last year's meltdown against Ohio State for further evidence. Pitino, on the other hand, is the only coach ever to take three different schools to the Final Four, and has never been beaten in the Sweet 16.
And now, the slightly less popular, look at the individual Volunteers:
Chris Lofton G, 6-2 (15.5 ppg/3.2rpg)
This might be the least necessary look at an opposing player ever.
The 2004 Kentucky Mr. Basketball and Rick Pitino's self-described "biggest mistake" has shattered numerous school records in his four years at Tennessee, and will graduate as the SEC's all-time leading three-point shooter.
He enters Thursday's game in a bit of a slump, however, having gone 3-for-12 from three in UT's first two NCAA tournament games, and failing to hit double-digits in either of them. He also suffered a minor ankle injury early in the win over Butler, and was reportedly wearing a walking boot earlier this week.
Lofton has turned himself into much more of an all-around player than he was when he first arrived in Knoxville, but he's still a shooter first. Just as the Butler scouting report noted, when he dribbles with his right hand he's often going to try and drive to the basket, while when he dribbles with his left hand he's generally just trying to create space in order to get a shot up from outside.
Slump or no slump, injury or no injury, this is the most dangerous player in orange. If he goes off for somewhere around 30 - which is always a possibility - then Louisville is probably cooked.
Tyler Smith F, 6-7 (13.7 ppg/6.8 rpg)
The most consistent, and perhaps valuable player on the Tennessee roster, Tyler Smith leads the team in both rebounds (6.8 rpg) and assists (3.6 apg).
He's third on the team in scoring at 13.7 ppg, and while the majority of his points come in the paint, off of put-backs or on the break, he's also knocked down 14-of-36 attempts from three this season, and went 3-for-3 against Arkansas in the SEC tournament semifinals. He's extremely skilled at 6-7, and can handle, shoot and pass the ball as well as a player three or four inches shorter. His go-to move is a spin in the lane, which he has used to hit several key shots throughout the course of the season.
JaJuan Smith is generally considered the best defender on the team, and if that is indeed true, then Tyler can't be far behind. He'll have his hands full on Thursday night, however, against a bigger, longer and equally athletic Earl Clark.
Aside from Lofton, this is the guy you least want with the ball in his hands and the game on the line if you're an opposing fan.
Oh yeah, and he can do this:
JaJuan Smith G, 6-2 (14.5 ppg/3.7 rpg)
Tennessee's second-leading scorer at 14.5 ppg, Smith actually ranks third on UT's all-time made three-pointers list, but his prolific outside shooting goes largely unnoticed because he plays on the same team as the man who sits atop that list. He's hit 90-of-232 (38.8%) attempts from beyond the arc this season, and drilled 6-of-11 on his way to a season-high 32 points against Arkansas on Feb. 13.
Aside from his deadly outside shooting, Smith is known for his tenacious on-ball defending. He leads the team and ranks fifth in the SEC in steals with 57. He'll likely be the guy at the front of the press, and the one applying pressure to either McGee or Sosa all night, as the taller J.P. Prince will almost certainly be assigned to T-Will.
Wayne Chism F, 6-9 (9.9 ppg/5.8 rpg)
Tennessee's most lethal post player is the 6-9 Chism, who comes into Thursday's game averaging just under ten points and six rebounds a contest. While he's a capable three-point shooter (31.8%), he's also quick and skilled enough to give David Padgett serious problems in the post.
Chism's main problem has been and remains staying out of foul trouble. He's had to sit out significant time in the first half of both tournament games after picking up two fouls relatively quickly. Still, he's likely been UT's tourney MVP so far, having scored 16 points in both opening weekend victories.
He comes into this game playing with a lot of confidence, and if the Volunteers come out looking to get him the ball inside, then he could either help Tennessee build a quick lead with easy buckets or get Padgett into some early foul trouble. I'm sure either would be fine with Pearl.
Also, I don't care for the way he wears his headband.
J.P. Prince G, 6-7 (8.3 ppg/3.3 rpg)
As mentioned earlier, Prince will be making both his second consecutive and his second ever start at the point on Thursday night. His leash is likely pretty short, however, since he made three consecutive turnovers down the stretch against Butler that helped the Bulldogs push the game into overtime.
Again, he's not a terrific ballhandler by point guard standards, but he is 6-7, which affords him the luxury of being able to see and throw over pressing defenders. He isn't a threat to knock down the outside shot, and scores about 90% of his points on fast breaks or drives.
Whoever checks him should pull the dyslexic version of the 3rd and 4th grade youth league move and completely sit on his left side, since he does not handle the ball nearly as well with his right.
Prince is a fine player who will definitely have an impact on what happens tomorrow night in Charlotte, but I'd be willing to bet that the ball will be out of his hands for a solid chunk of the game, and almost certainly in the last four minutes.
Ramar Smith G, 6-2 (7.5 ppg/2.4 rpg)
And in those last four minutes, the ball will be in the hands of this guy.
Despite being benched for Prince, Smith saved the Volunteers in overtime against Butler, knocking down a huge three and a pair of free-throws in the final 13 seconds to earn the win.
Though he's not a real threat from behind the three-point line, Smith is Pearl's best ballhandler, and I'd be extremely surprised if he doesn't see more minutes at the point than anyone against Louisville. He has had a problem with taking care of the ball, and Pearl has to know that putting him on the floor means taking the really good with the really bad. In Smith's case, the really bad includes defense. His steal numbers are respectable, but he has a hard time keeping quick guards in front of him, and handling Edgar Sosa (assuming, of course, that Bad Edgar misses the flight) could be a chore.
Duke Crews F, 6-7 (5.4 ppg/4.1 rpg)
The man who steps in when Chism gets himself into foul trouble is Duke Crews, a 6-7 rebounding machine with limited offensive skills. He averages 4.1 rebounds per game despite playing just 14.7 minutes, and grabbed 11 in 21 minutes in a game against Arkansas in February. Like Chism, he often allows his man to catch the ball far too close to the basket, which leads to either a foul or an easy basket.
Jordan Howell G, 6-3 (4.3 ppg/1.3 rpg)
Howell has been the man at the point for much of the season, but his current 4-for-40 shooting slump has made him almost an afterthought on the bench. He played just five minutes against Butler, and Pearl said after the game that his floor time was unlikely to increase from there on out. He's been a solid outside shooter for most of the season, though, so leaving him alone if he does see some action would be a mistake. The last thing the Cards need is someone unexpected to go on a tear from the outside.
Brian Williams C, 6-10 (2.9 ppg/3.5 rpg)
At 6-10, 267 lbs., Williams is the only true center on the Tennessee roster. Despite a 16-point performance against Western Kentucky in December, Williams is far from a skilled post player, and is little more than a big body to put on the floor when Crews and Chism are tired or in foul trouble. While his body is big, it's also remarkably slow, which makes him an extreme liability against a front line like Louisville's.
Josh Tabb G, 6-4 (1.3 ppg/1.6 rpg)
Tabb is a reserve guard who is generally brought into the game to provide a spark defensively. In 257 minutes this season, he's made more steals (19) than field goals (16).
I've heard a number of people predicting 8-10 point victories in one direction or the other this week, and to be honest I just don't see it. These teams are very evenly matched athletically, and any advantage that Tennessee has on offense is counteracted, I think, by Louisville's advantage on defense.
Sure, it looks like the Cardinals are coming into the game playing much better basketball, but they would have struggled with Butler every bit as much as Tennessee did, and their shooting statistics would not have been as impressive had they not faced a Boise State team content to let them prove that they could make unguarded shots from the outside.
Basically, this was a toss-up game two weeks ago, and it's still a toss-up game right now.