Can the Vols make the Tourney?
Passion. Confidence. Swagger. Call it whatever. Tennessee’s basketball team needs it.
Jarnell Stokes may have been leading UT in that direction when he said the Vols should dominate Arkansas on Wednesday. No, the Vols didn’t dominate the Razorbacks in an 81-74 win. However, UT had the confidence, led by Jordan McRae, in the final five minutes against the Hawgs.
Many have said Stokes wasn’t implying that the Vols would dominate the entire game against Arkansas when he made those comments on Tuesday. Most think Stokes meant the Vols would dominate in rebounding. However, pretend for a minute that Stokes’ comments had an edge to them.
That wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Actually, it would have been perfect timing.
The Vols are at a crossroad. After being beaten soundly by Kentucky on Saturday, the NCAA Tournament looks a long ways away. UT certainly didn’t look like a championship team against Arkansas, but still the Vols took care of business.
There’s no shame in losing convincingly in Lexington. There would have been shame in losing to a woeful road team like Arkansas at home. There’s also shame in allowing one loss to dent a team’s psyche. It’s fight or flight time for the Vols. Stokes comments and McRae’s clutch performance seem to indicate the Vols want to fight.
It’s a long season. Yet it’s flying by. UT’s strength of schedule is so weak that achieving 20 wins won’t make UT a lock to be selected for NCAA Tournament. That 20-win benchmark means very little for UT. The Vols need at least 22 or it’s NIT time.
The Vols are currently 12-6. UT has 13 games left this season before the SEC Tournament. That means the Vols need to win at least 9 games in the regular season and one in the SEC Tournament to ensure themselves of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
It’s not time to call any of UT’s remaining basketball games “must wins.” There’s too much season remaining. However, the Arkansas game was a “must-not-lose” game.
Stokes speaking up is a sign of a team that is ready for a stretch run, one that will end with a chance to play in one of the most spectacular sporting events in the country or utter disappointment. However, if he and his comments don’t inspire the Vols, then they weren’t going to make the NCAA tournament anyway.
Except for UT’s basketball teams that were coached by Bruce Pearl, the Vols have traditionally lacked the necessary passion to consistently dominate their opponents. Other UT teams had talent, but no killer instinct.
Stokes’ comments could be a sign that the Vols have found that – or at least some of it. If not, perhaps the Vols can get a home game in the NIT.
Perhaps the Vols have found the key – or keys – to their future success: a healthy Jarnell Stokes and a demanding Jordan McRae. Stokes, who had been slowed by an ailing shoulder, played a career game against Kentucky. McRae pulled out a win against Arkansas thanks to a late scoring surge.
Of course, UT lost to Kentucky. It wasn’t the first nor will it be the last time the Vols fall short in Rupp Arena. However, it’s easy to see who the Vols need to lean on moving forward. Start inside with the forwards, namely Stokes. Then let UT’s guards, mostly McRae, finish when defenses begin to collapse on the bigs.
The Vols are far from a championship team. They might not even be an NCAA Tournament team. However, there’s reason to believe there’s at least a plan out there to get to the NCAA Tournament and advance.
Perhaps it’s time for Cuonzo Martin to hire a publicist
On one hand, it’s hard not to appreciate Martin’s honesty in post-game media conferences. However, some recent comments haven’t set well with fans.
First, Martin said he and his players were a bit down in practices before the Auburn game after a heart-breaking loss to Texas A&M. It was an odd comment. If the coach is down, how can his players be up?
Then, following a sloppy Arkansas win on Wednesday, Martin said his team didn’t run plays and mostly freelanced because the Razorbacks got the Vols so out of rhythm. No plays? Not what fans want to hear.
Sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy. Candor might be a better option.