:NEW YORK CITY – With all that is going on off the court, some of us forgot a simple fact: Tennessee is a very good basketball team. They shifted the action from the background to what is happening on the floor by capturing the Pre-Season NIT at Madison Square Garden.
The Semifinal Scores:
Tennessee 77, VCU 72
Villanova 82, UCLA 70
VCU 89, UCLA 85
Tennessee 78, Villanova 68
Five points of emphasis from the Pre-Season NIT:
1. Tennessee is not only resilient but talented. Despite the ongoing drama in Knoxville regarding coach Bruce pearl, the Volunteers came to New York and just concentrated on one thing: playing basketball at a high level. Pearl commented after the VCU game on what great things the Rams do and how much fun it was preparing for them. The Tennessee coach said the same thing about Villanova. Pearl, quite frankly, wanted to put all of these off the floor issues aside for now. Not dwelling on them does not mean they will go away. But for now Pearl is thrilled to be doing what he loves best: breaking down tapes, planning and preparing with his staff.
2. Villanova needs a plan B, Jay Wright admitted after the Tennessee game. There will not be many nights when Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes for that matter are all shut down and not as effective. But when those days do come, Villanova will have to try a different approach. Admittedly, shutting down the Villanova backcourt like Tennessee did will not happen often. But it could happen in Big East and/or post-season and Wright wants to be prepared. Both nights Mouphtaou Yarou came through for Villanova. He scored in double figures both nights and against UCLA the 6-10 sophomore had 16 rebounds and three blocks. Wright likes Yarou’s defensive presence as it gives the guards the opportunity to defensively gamble knowing there is a “stopper” to guard the basket. His offense, as well as that of Antonio Pena and Dominic Cheek (both had good outings in the final), is going to figure very much into Wright’s plans down the road.
3. VCU will be tough to contend with in the Colonial. They earned a split in New York and showed some impressive attributes both nights out. VCU loves the three-pointers and transition. The uptempo offense of coach Shaka Smart relies on 38 percent of its scoring from beyond the arc. Often these three-point attempts are uncontested as the Rams attempt them in half court or out on the break. Their pace is a rapid 75 possessions per game and they utilize those possessions with a very impressive 111 offensive efficiency. This is a team not wildly running or bombing from three. There is an inside presence in Jamie Skeen. Prior to coming to New York, the 6-9 senior asked his teammates to get him the ball more. “When more is given, more is expected,” Smart said with a biblical theme regarding the request. Skeen delivered both nights, especially with a team-high 23-point outing against UCLA, earning him all-tournament honors. Not the last honor VCU will see this season.
4. UCLA showed heart. Down 15 at the half in the semifinal against top ten Villanova. Three time zones from home. It seemed like a time to think consolation game. To their credit, the Bruins tightened the defense, kept their composure and had it to a two-possession game midway through the final half before Villanova went on a game-sealing run. In the third place game the Bruins competed hard for 40 minutes before dropping a close one to VCU. What the Bruins have to do is avoid slow starts. They suffered through them in both contests in New York. They also need contributions from Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson on a nightly basis. Against Villanova, Honeycutt (a 15 PPG scorer) came up with only eight points on 3-8 shooting. The Pac-10 is relatively balanced this season. There are games that are “winnable” through extra effort and outplaying opponents. Here UCLA showed the effort. Now if they can avoid those slow starts.
5. Tennessee can defend. Scotty Hopson is a threat on the perimeter or in the paint. Tobias Harris can slash and score. Brian Williams, at 6-10 cleans the offensive glass for put backs. Make no mistake, Bruce Pearl’s club is anything but one-dimensional. The defense by the Vols in the two games was quite impressive. Villanova entered the game with a 119 offensive efficiency, but was held to 93 by an active, harassing Tennessee defense. In fact, Tennessee held both opponents under 100 offensive efficiency as VCU managed just a 90 OE in the semifinals. In the final Hopson bothered the Villanova guards all night with his quickness and length. Villanova did struggle offensively in the championship. Blame that on the Vol defense.
Jamie Skeen (VCU)
Reeves Nelson (UCLA)
Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova)
Tobias Harris (Tennessee)
Scotty Hopson (Tennessee) – MVP