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I had the great opportunity to talk with Rocky Top Talk yesterday, another fabulous blog on the SB Nation network. I was able to do a quick Q&A session with writer Will about today's match-up of 11 seed San Diego State and 6 seed Tennessee. We found that our teams had a lot of similarities including the fact that we both are under-seeded.
While you guys are checking out Rocky Top Talk, check out the Q&A session I did with them about the game here. I will have the full preview up later this morning.
1. Obviously this year has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs to say the least. The biggest question everyone wants to know is, will the Vols be motivated by their perceived underseeding and huge loss to Kentucky to come out and play their best basketball or will they come out flat not wanting to play a team from a non-Big 6 conference that they've never seen on TV? How will Coach Pearl motivate them? How about all of the national media picking SDSU to win this game? Personally, I absolutely HATE it, but do you think it will motivate or demoralize the Vols?
The last ten minutes of the Kentucky game in Nashville were very demoralizing, especially considering the Vols beat Kentucky just two weeks before that. We still thought we had the resume of a 4 seed, or a 5 at worst, and so the 6 was an additional punch to the gut. However, when Seth Davis instantly picked San Diego State to beat us, I think that started turning things around from disappointment to motivation. And you're right, the majority of the national media have followed his lead and picked SDSU - what I hope it does for Tennessee is make them realize they're doing it not just because we got blown out by Kentucky, but because you guys are legit. Tennessee also got dusted by Southern Cal in a game against a team they'd never seen, and a game they were not ready for. I think that helps Pearl have them ready to play - my biggest concern would've been them looking ahead to Georgetown or even Ohio State (since we beat Georgetown last year by double digits), but now thanks to all the media picking SDSU, I think they'll be focused. I just hope they're expecting the same type of game from the same quality opponent they'd expect to see in later rounds, and bring their best basketball.
2. Just looking at the Vol's season, it seems they didn't play very many true road games and when they did they seemed to struggle. Is there any truth to this? What do the Vols have to do better to win away from home?
Tennessee's two biggest road wins got swept away by something else almost immediately: the Vols won at Memphis (66-59), but then had four players arrested less than 24 hours later. And our best game of the season was at Mississippi State (75-59) on the final day of the regular season, but the conference tournament play swallowed that up. The Vols went 5-5 in true road games, 4-4 in the SEC and 1-1 in the non-conference (the USC loss was incredibly frustrating, and was the worst loss of the Pearl Era until Kentucky last Saturday). The Vols lost at Georgia, but so did Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia Tech, and Illinois.
Outside the Kentucky loss, the Vols had played well on neutral floors, getting two wins in the SEC Tournament, two wins in the Paradise Jam followed by a one point loss to a full-strength Purdue team, and beating Middle Tennessee in Nashville. We lost only one game at home and had some clunkers on the road, so we do struggle more away from our fans, and at times did so especially late in the game: the Vols were neck and neck with Kentucky and Florida on the road for the first 30 minutes (same with Kentucky in Nashville), and then got blasted in the last 10. We have to play with consistent energy, effort, and more discipline to win any games in the tournament.
3. Do the Vols have any particular weaknesses in areas of strength for the Aztecs? Any particular strengths in areas of weakness for the Aztecs? What do you think will be the key match-up? Chism and Leonard? Or something else?
If Tennessee plays man-to-man, they may start with J.P. Prince on Leonard, simply because Chism is prone to foul trouble. SDSU's offensive rebounding is the thing that worries me the most - the Vols can match SDSU's front line in size (Prince is 6'7", Chism 6'9", Brian Williams 6'10"), and Chism and Williams are good rebounders, but we're going to need more than just them to do their job on the inside. On the other end, I think there's an advantage for us with our guards getting to the hole, but we've had a difficult time finishing against contact.
In terms of matchups, I think we're both so balanced that's it's impossible to know which guy on either team is going to be the most important player, which makes this an even more fascinating game. I think, unfortunately, the refs will play a role: if they're calling everything, SDSU's poor free throw shooting and Tennessee's penetration give the Vols the advantage. If they're letting us play, SDSU's rebounding presence and the Vols' struggles to score against contact give SDSU the advantage.
4. Is there any specific player that needs to have a good game for the Vols to have their best shot at winning? Or do they need to come together and play as a team for their best chance?
Though we are balanced, and you can expect the most consistency from our seniors (point guard Bobby Maze, guard/forward Prince, Chism), the difference between Tennessee being good and great is Scotty Hopson. Hopson will be the most talented guard and perhaps the most talented player (I'm anxious to see Leonard) on the floor...but he sometimes plays like he doesn't know that. At the end of the regular season he was at his best, both as a three point shooter and getting to the hole. He hit the shots that allowed us to beat Florida and Kentucky in Knoxville. But then in the SEC Tournament, he disappeared again - if Hopson is cold at the start of the game, he gets down on himself so much you'll probably be able to see it on TV. A quick start for Hopson is the best thing that could happen to Tennessee.
5. To win this game the Vols have to.... To win the game the Aztecs have to....
It's been forever since I've said this, but to win this game Tennessee has to speed things up. Since we lost Tyler Smith after the January 1 arrests, the Vols have played at a much slower pace with less quality depth, especially against lots of other teams in the SEC this year that wanted to run. But against a deliberate team like SDSU, the Vols need to make the most of their transition opportunities, and then turn the Aztecs over (as you mentioned in our questions). There will be times when the Vols have to be deliberate too...but this is the first time in forever that playing at a faster pace benefits Tennessee, not the opponent.
San Diego State needs to frustrate Tennessee with defense and rebounds, and make us settle for three pointers. If you take Scotty Hopson out of the game and make J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism decide they have easier opportunities to shoot from outside, we're going to be in trouble. We're more disciplined than we used to be about not taking so many threes (we were the worst shooting three point team in last year's NCAA field, and then took 33 of them in a first round loss to Oklahoma State), but we can still fall in love with it from time to time. If your halfcourt interior defense is there, and you're not turning it over to give us transition baskets, life is going to be very difficult for Tennessee.