Preview & Prediction: By Raphielle Johnson
The 24th-ranked Memphis Tigers (15-3, 5-0 Conference USA) have won nine straight games…but are we completely sold on this team? That’s a question that will have a far more definitive answer on Saturday when they take on in-state rival Tennessee (12-5, 3-1 SEC). But that same question can be asked of the Volunteers, who in their last showcase game were seen on ESPN getting lit up by one Jodie Meeks (they played at Vanderbilt in a nationally-televised game Tuesday, but that’s hardly a “showcase” game for this program). It isn’t as if these two have gone out and lost to any bad teams; it’s that their most impressive wins haven’t registered as truly big wins (best win by RPI: Memphis (46- UAB), Tennessee (Georgetown- 10). And Tennessee’s win over the Hoyas came all the way back on November 28th.
Memphis went into this season with a question mark at the point guard position. A few have sat in that chair for head coach John Calipari, with freshman sensation Tyreke Evans being the guy once conference play rolled around. Evans, the best on-the-ball playmaker the Tigers have, leads the team in scoring and is second in assists (16.6 ppg, 3.9 apg). Senior Antonio Anderson, who leads the team in assists with just over four helpers per game, also had his shot at the point but things didn’t run too smoothly when he was in the saddle. The Tigers are fourth in Conference USA in both turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio, but those numbers can sometimes take a backseat due to their marksmanship. Unfortunately for Memphis they’ve had to deal with shooting woes this year, ranking ninth in field goal percentage and tenth in three-point percentage this season.
But they could be in line for a breakout offensive performance, due to the level of defense that the Volunteers have played this season. Meeks’ 54-point performance can be cited all day long, but keep in mind these two stats: Tennessee is eleventh in the SEC in field goal percentage defense (43.8%) and twelfth in three-point percentage defense (35.9%). That’s a lot more than Meeks at play when it comes to Bruce Pearl’s team playing defense. That pressure defense that was a staple of their run to the SEC title last season hasn’t been as effective this year either. Tennessee, who led the conference in steals last season with more than nine per game, is seventh with an average of 6.8 pilfers per contest. And for a team that has lived off of the miscues of opponents, a turnover margin of +0.41 isn’t going to get the job done.
But just like Memphis on the offensive end of the floor, the Vols could take advantage of the Tigers’ instability at the point at Thompson-Boling Arena. Forwards Tyler Smith (17.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Wayne Chism (12.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) have been the Volunteers’ most consistent players this season, but keep an eye on freshman guard Cameron Tatum. He can be inconsistent, but when he’s on this team is tough to beat. Analysts will most likely bill this game as a matchup between highly-touted freshmen Evans and Scotty Hopson, but the play of the point guards will tell the story in the end. With a wild home crowd behind it, look for the Volunteers to force enough turnovers to pick up the non-conference win.
Winner: Tennessee Margin: 7-11 pts.
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About Raphielle Johnson
College sports has always been a source of excitement for Raphielle Johnson, be it through watching, writing, or taking a shot in the dark and walking onto a college football team just to live the life (Arizona Football, 2001). Raphielle is the assistant editor, providing his own work in addition to helping out with the site operations. When not writing for CHN, you can usually find him in front of a television set watching one of many pay-per-view sports packages that he owns. He can be followed at twitter.com/raphiellej.
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