Vexing Vols host Tech tonight

If you're looking for the best coverage available on Vol hoops you've come to the right place. Check out this preview of tonight's game between Tennessee and visiting Tennessee Tech:

First-year Tennessee basketball coach Donnie Tyndall will be looking for a victory – and maybe some consistency – when his Vols host Tennessee Tech tonight at 7:05. He’ll settle for the former.

Given that Tyndall is trying to blend four holdovers from 2013-14 with seven newcomers, Tennessee’s lack of consistency en route to a 4-4 start is understandable. That doesn’t make it any less maddening, however.

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No phase of play has been more erratic for Tennessee than its 3-point shooting. The Vols were awful in Game 1 versus Virginia Commonwealth (4 of 17), Game 3 versus Santa Clara (2 of 11), Game 5 against Marquette (3 of 20) and Game 6 against Kansas State (4 of 16). They were about average in Game 4 versus Kansas (6 of 18, 33 percent) and Game 7 versus Butler (3 of 10, 30 percent). Tennessee was excellent in Game 2 versus Texas Southern (7 of 16, 43.8 percent), then shocked the world by draining 55.6 percent (10 of 18) in Wednesday night’s Game 8 loss at North Carolina State.

The Big Orange lacks a great shooter but has four decent 3-point shooters – senior Josh Richardson (34.6 percent), JUCO transfer Devon Baulkman (36.4 percent), junior Derek Reese (42.9 percent) and freshman Detrick Mostella (33.3). The rest of the Vols should launch from 3 only as a last resort.

Rebounding has been another area of mind-boggling inconsistency this season. The Vols bested Texas Southern (40-27), Santa Clara (34-25) and Marquette (39-22) but were badly beaten on the boards by Kansas (44-22), Kansas State (39-28) and N.C. State (36-27). Tyndall teams typically dominate the backboards but this Tennessee team lacks the size and bulk to do so.

With Dominic Woodson transferring and Jabari McGhee sidelined a projected 6-8 weeks by a lower-leg injury, the Vols’ inside game consists of two skinny freshmen (6-foot-10, 205-pound Tariq Owens and 6-foot-8, 205-pound Willie Carmichael) and a couple of juniors who began their careers as wings (6-foot-8, 220-pound Derek Reese and 6-foot-5, 215-pound Armani Moore). Until Owens and Carmichael add some bulk there isn’t much relief in sight.

In addition to rebounding, Tennessee’s lack of size hurts in terms of post scoring. The Vols desperately need a big man who can shoot 60 percent and average 12 points per game but that guy is not on campus. Moore averages 11.1 points per game but is hitting just 41.0 percent. Reese averages 4.3 points per game and has taken more shots outside the 3-point arc than inside it. Carmichael is hitting a decent 47.8 percent from the field but averages just 3.8 points. Owens is getting pushed off the block regularly. Result: He’s 1 for 7 from the field and averaging half-a-point per game.

On top of that, Tennessee’s inability to match up inside has forced the Vols to pack in their 1-3-1 zone and concede the 3-point shot. Opponents are making the Big Orange pay for this, shooting 38.2 percent beyond the arc and averaging 8.5 made 3s per game. By comparison, Tennessee is shooting 31.0 percent from 3 and averaging 4.9 makes per game.

Lacking a true point guard, Tennessee struggles to run its halfcourt offense, routinely posting fewer assists than turnovers. This was the case in each of the first five games – Virginia Commonwealth (12 to 19), Texas Southern (7 to 8), Santa Clara (8 o 12), Kansas (8 to 10) and Marquette (9 to 15).

On a positive note, Tennessee has recorded more assists than turnovers in each of the past three games – producing 15 and 10 versus Kansas State, 8 and 7 against Butler, 11 and 5 against N.C. State. That suggests Richardson is progressing as he makes the unlikely transformation from small forward to point guard.

The Vols have been consistent in two areas but they are not positive areas – slow starts and fouling.

Tennessee has trailed at halftime in six of its first eight games. The deficits were substantial against VCU (48-30), Kansas (40-33), Butler (34-25) and N.C. State (39-27). Tennessee struggled to a 30-30 halftime tie with Texas Southern, so the Vols have actually led at halftime just once in eight games – taking a 25-17 margin to the locker room against Kansas State.

As for fouling, the Vols qualify for elite status in that regard. They were whistled 34 times versus VCU, 22 times versus Texas Southern, 23 times versus Santa Clara, 28 times versus Kansas and 24 times versus Marquette. The Big Orange improved in Games 6 and 7 – recording 19 fouls each in defeats of Kansas State and Butler – but was back to hacking in Game 8, committing 28 fouls Wednesday night at North Carolina State.

The obvious cure for Tennessee’s inconsistency would be to play all of its games at home. The Vols are 2-0 at Thompson-Boling Arena, where they tend to shoot, rebound and defend significantly better. That’s because Tennessee’s success is predicated on forcing turnovers with its full-court press and trapping 1-3-1 zone. Teams get more energy from the fans and more favorable calls from the refs at home, which bodes well for the Vols in tonight’s game with Tennessee Tech.

“At home you get that extra energy,” Tyndall conceded. “Your press is always better. It doesn’t matter if it’s us, Louisville, Florida, whoever: Your press is always going to be better at home.”

GAME NOTES: Tonight will be Tennessee’s third game in nine days…. The Vols have allowed an average of nearly ten 3-point baskets per game over the past three contests, as foes made 29 of 76. Kansas State connected on 8 of 21, Butler 10 of 29 and N.C. State 11 of 26…. Starting guards Richardson and Kevin Punter have combined to score 46 percent of Tennessee’s points over the past three games, averaging 31.0 points per game in tandem…. Tennessee Tech is 6-4 under fourth-year head coach Steve Payne. The Golden Eagles were 17-16 (9-7 OVC) last season…. Tech is coming off an 82-80 road win at North Florida…. The Golden Eagles’ best player is 6-foot-10, 225-pound junior Charles Jackson, who average 13.6 points and 9.4 rebounds…. Tennessee leads the all-time series with Tech 21-1… Tipoff is scheduled for 7:05 with TV coverage provided by Fox Sports Net.

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