Posing for photographs, sophomore transfer Dominic Woodson (6-feet-10, 274 pounds) and prep school grad Jabari McGhee (6-feet-8, 210) combined with lanky freshmen Willie Carmichael (6-feet-8, 195) and Tariq Owens (6-feet-10, 184) to give the Vols four decent-looking post prospects.
Heading into tonight’s game at Vanderbilt, however, the Big Orange is down to Options 3 and 4. Woodson left school after playing in just four games, then McGhee fractured his right foot in Game 8 at North Carolina State and appears lost for the season. That leaves the Vols with Carmichael (now weighing 205) and Owens (now weighing 192) to share the post duties.
Naturally, the Vol duo struggles to score against opposing centers who typically outweigh them by 30-60 pounds each. Carmichael is averaging 3.5 points per game, Owens 0.8. Carmichael had two points in Saturday’s loss at Georgia. Owens started the game but did not score.
“Tariq and Willie are going to be fine in time, but they aren't go-to options in the post,” Vol head man Donnie Tyndall conceded. “All of our scoring in the paint is off dribble penetration. When teams shrink the floor like Georgia does it really makes it hard to get inside the paint.”
When your post players are as skinny as Tennessee’s, rebounding against bigger opponents is just as challenging as scoring against them. Essentially, Carmichael and Owens were no-shows on the backboards at Georgia.
“Tariq plays 14 minutes and doesn't get a rebound,” Tyndall said. “Willie Carmichael played eight minutes, and he didn't get a rebound. You have two five-men that play 20-25 minutes between them and don't rebound the ball. You have to play with more physicality, and that's asking a lot from guys who aren't there yet from a strength standpoint."
That lack of strength shows up on defense, as well as on the backboards. Georgia scored just about every time it got the ball to the post last weekend, which is a key reason the Dawgs shot 55.3 percent as a team.
“We aren't getting the post fronted as often as we should,” Tyndall said. “I think that comes from the two big guys, Tariq and Willie. They’re trying to work to front but they just aren't strong enough to do that, so they’re drawing fouls or aren't getting the job done.”
They’re drawing fouls, all right. Carmichael already fouled out twice this year, despite averaging just 16 minutes per game. He was whistled four times in just eight minutes of court time at Georgia. For the year he is averaging one foul every 5.1 minutes. Owens is no better, averaging one foul every 5.15 minutes.
“The game is so fast for Willie and Tariq,” Tyndall noted. “They know they have to work to front the post. They know they should meet the guy at the elbow. We call it ‘meeting them at the junction’ to force them away from the rim. In transition, they are sprinting back. They get to the rim and now they try to hit the guy but it's too late … cheap foul. It's just experience.”
While waiting for Owens and Carmichael to gain that experience, Tyndall has been giving junior Derek Reese some playing time in the post. At 6-feet-8 and 220 pounds, he has enough heft to bang under the backboards. He has played on the wing most of his career, however, and may be more of a stop-gap measure than a solution on the inside.
In an effort to bolster its post defense Tennessee sometimes has undersized power forward Armani Moore (6-feet-5, 210 pounds) help out on the opposing center.
“We've worked on doubling the post with a forward, and we've done a decent job with that,” Tyndall said. “But when you do that, they have opportunities to kick it out and have decent looks from behind the 3-point line.”
Actually, the looks have been better than “decent.” That’s why opponents are burning the Vols to the tune of 37.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.
Bottom line: Tyndall faces a pick-your-poison dilemma each night: If he packs the zone in tight he gives up a barrage of 3-balls. If he extends the defense to cover the 3 he leaves his undersized centers mismatched one on one against bigger, stronger, older guys.
Basically, Tennessee’s best hope of limiting opponents’ points in the paint is to keep the ball out of the paint. That requires five guys working well together.
“Derek, Tariq and Willie are undersized,” Tyndall said, “but they have to continue to work to front the post and be more physical. And we have to have better ball pressure on the perimeter to kind of save the day from the ball being thrown inside so easily."
GAME NOTES: Like predecessors Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin, Tyndall will wear an orange blazer whenever the Vols face Vanderbilt. Tyndall was presented the blazer at a Big Orange Caravan stop in Johnson City last summer by the sons of the late Ray Mears, the UT coach who originated the blazer concept…. Tennessee brings a 13-9 overall record and 5-5 SEC mark into tonight’s game. Vanderbilt is 13-10 and 3-7. The Commodores opened SEC play with a win over Auburn, lost seven straight, then beat Florida and South Carolina…. Vandy’s Damian Jones leads the team in scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.6 per game)…. Commodore guard Riley LaChance is the SEC’s top-scoring freshman at 12.8 points per game…. The Vols are 24-40 all-time against Vandy at Memorial Gym…. Vol junior Kevin Punter leads the SEC in steals (2.4 per game) for league games only…. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. Central (9 Eastern) with TV coverage provided by the SEC Network.