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Vols’ Persistence Justifies A No. 1 Ranking

Dec 22, 2018; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers forward Grant Williams (2) and guard Admiral Schofield (5) react to a play against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers barely avoided an upset on Saturday by edging the Alabama Crimson Tide 71-68. The Vols were deficient in many areas of the game, but ultimately found a way to win.

Here is what we learned from the affair:

Rebound Letdown

Tennessee was out-rebounded for the second straight game. This facet of the game was meaningless in a blowout of Arkansas earlier in the week. It was crucial against the Tide.

One of the Vols’ biggest advantages is the physicality they play with. They have simply killed opponents in the rebounding department. Tennessee out-rebounded opponents to the tune of a 108-71 margin through their first three conference games. This included Missouri and Florida, two of the most physical teams in the SEC.

The Arkansas game is probably a blip, considering the pace of the game and an attempt by the Razorbacks to cut into an insurmountable lead.

The Alabama game is a different story. Danta Hall wreaked havoc on the inside. Tennessee’s Kyle Alexander held his own, but it was his toughest competition this year. Hall also did an amazing job when guarding Grant Williams, especially in the final moments when Hall drew an offensive foul on Williams.

The most alarming note of the game is that Williams finished with just two rebounds. You, the reader, had just as many as the reigning SEC Player of the Year at halftime. This was a major factor in the game. The Charlotte native came up with two in the second half, with one being the most crucial of the game. He put back an Admiral Schofield miss with just under a minute remaining to put the Vols up by three.

Schofield led the way with 11 rebounds and Alexander had nine. The contributions from these seniors helped compensate for the lack of impact from Williams. The Vols need to get back to winning this area of the game to avoid any collapse similar to what they witnessed on Saturday afternoon.

Hot and Cold

This game was definitely a tale of two halves. The Vols shot a blistering 60 percent from the field in the first half against Alabama. In the second, they shot an appalling 29.4 percent.

When the Tide opened up with a 13-0 run to begin the second half, the momentum carried over to the defense. Alabama guarded extremely well after the Volunteer lead was decimated. Tennessee had decent looks on offense, but most were contested.

In all, the Vols’ field goal percentage settled at 43.8 percent. That number is far from terrible, but it was their lowest mark in SEC play. Tennessee has gone below the 50 percent line only three other times this season. They shot 41.3 percent against Kansas and 40.3 percent versus Gonzaga. Their lowest mark, 39.6 percent, came against Georgia Tech.

The game against Alabama was definitely the most polarizing of the season for the Vols. Even the best teams have bad shooting nights. Luckily, their shooting woes lasted for just a half.

Turnovers Are Key

Tennessee did a very good job at taking care of the ball and limiting mistakes. They were ultra-efficient in the first half. Yet, they still turned the ball over six times. In their unproductive half, they limited their turnovers to just three. This, along with Alabama’s inept free-throw shooting (8-18) were the keys to victory. The Vols can’t control an opponent’s free-throw percentage. They did, however, control their destiny by limiting mistakes on offense and milking the clock.

Saturday marked the fifth time this season that Tennessee has stayed below 10 in the turnover department. Their efficient production on offense has blanketed a tendency to turn the ball over too much. If the Vols keep this number below 10, they won’t lose many games.

On the flip side of this facet, Tennessee continues to force turnovers at a steady rate. They forced 13 against the Tide, which is right around their average of 14 per game. That rate is about average compared to the rest of the country.

Most importantly, they have a knack for taking care of the ball. The Vols ranked in the top-20 percent of Division I in turnovers coming into Saturday. They had nine against the Tide.

Efficient to the Bone

Even after a putrid second half and a polarizing shooting display, the Vols still rank among the most efficient teams in the country. They entered Sunday sitting at fourth in the country in offensive efficiency. There is an assortment of talent on this team, but the systematic approach starts with Jordan Bone.

Bone is having a breakout year. He has taken full control of the point guard duties and is doing so by developing into one of the best in the conference, if not the nation.

The junior is averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 assists behind two potential All-Americans and a talented cast. His most important contributions have been pushing tempo when needed, and dissecting defenses with precise passing and elite speed. His assist-to-turnover ratio has risen to 3.7-1 on the year. Bone has been most efficient in conference play, though. His AST/TO rate against the SEC is a blistering 5-1.

He has the ability to explode for points, but Tennessee is at its best when Bone controls the offense and pace. He had 10 points, seven assists and one turnover to quietly lead the Vols over the Tide.

Vols Deserve to be No. 1

Despite being having the worst 20 minutes of the season, the Vols were able to prevail. The first half seemed like every other dominating home performance this season. But then, Tennessee got punched in the mouth.

They saw a relentless and physical team in Alabama, led by an outstanding shooting performance from John Petty, come out in the second half ready to fight. A 12 point lead evaporated in less than four minutes. The Vols quickly had to find humility, and they did.

They couldn’t buy a basket in the second half. They were out-rebounded by the widest margin all season. Their leader, Williams, had an inefficient day. Yet, they resolved to win. What won them the game in the final moments is the same thing that has separated them from the good of college basketball to the elite.

With two and-a-half minutes remaining, the precedence of the game didn’t matter. Their leaders made plays. Schofield found a seam and powered his way to a bucket. Williams closed out on the red-hot Petty and was able to miraculously graze the ball, creating a turnover. On Schofield’s next shot attempt, Williams positioned himself to clean up the miss.

The result was beating an inferior, yet dangerous, Alabama team and keeping a historic win streak alive. Out of the top four teams in college basketball, the No. 3 Tennessee Vols were the only ones that defended their supremacy for the whole week.

The resolve they showed Saturday, coupled with their impressive resume, prove that Tennessee has earned the right to sit atop of the elites in college basketball for the first time in 10 years.

Maybe this time they can reside there for a little longer. If this season’s developments are any indication, this Vols team has the resiliency to go beyond a brief stay at No. 1.

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