NEW YORK -- Tennessee under Bruce Pearl has become a lock to win 20 games per year and a surefire NCAA tournament team. Virginia Commonwealth under Shaka Smart is a mid-major on the cusp of the casual fan's radar. Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, Pearl's bunch of five-stars looked an awful lot like Smart's upstarts, for better and for worse. Each team struggled to score in half-court sets but looked capable in transition and relentless on defense. But it was Tennessee that came away with the 77-72 win in an 80-possession NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal.
If Tennessee defends SEC opponents like they did VCU (a good offensive team), expect the Vols to earn an at-large bid, whether Pearl is drawing up the plays in the huddle or not for half the season. If the Rams treat Colonial Athletic Association teams the same way they treated Tennessee (holding the Vols to an effective FG percentage of 40), a first- or second-place finish in the CAA is certainly in play.
We've heard plenty about Tennessee's big-picture question marks, from problematic BBQs and the resulting penalties to the uncertainty that comes from your coach working without a contract. How that all will play out remains to be seen. But we did catch a glimpse of some of the Vols' on-court questions and received some possible answers.
Junior wing Scotty Hopson, the requisite riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma for his two-plus years in Knoxville, put his potential to work Wednesday, posting a 6-for-15, 18-point, 11-rebound double-double. After scoring eight points on 2-for-6 shooting in a first half in which the Vols faded late, Hopson ratcheted up his intensity early in the second half, scoring six straight points to stretch the Vols' lead to five and force a VCU timeout. "Scotty is a tough cover," Pearl said. "Once he got in there taking it deep, finishing with contact, commanding a better whistle and getting to the foul line, I thought that was good."
Hopson has taken on a huge role in Tennessee's offense so far this season, using more than 32 percent of the team's possessions but posting an effective FG percentage of just 44. He wasn't the picture of efficiency on Wednesday -- he created less than one point per possession used -- but he served as a 6-7 litmus test, playing well when Tennessee played well and struggling when the Vols stagnated. With Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith out of the picture, Hopson is the main attraction on offense. If that's bad or good remains to be seen.
Freshman standout Tobias Harris celebrated his return to his home state by bounding out of the gate with 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting in the first 11 minutes. At that point, Tennessee led by nine and looked well on its way to an easy victory. Problem was, Harris was scoring most of his points in transition off of turnovers. When the turnovers stopped coming, Harris stopped scoring. From that point on he went 0-for-8 from the floor and was not the focal point of Pearl's offense. It's clear Harris is an above-average player already. He has a high-major body that will only get better. What's unclear is whether Tennessee can use his tremendous talent effectively within its half-court offense.
The Rams worked their way back into the game after Harris fell silent, taking a 29-28 lead late in the first half on a pair of Brandon Rozzell free throws. Hopson's quick burst to begin the second half put a bit of distance between the teams, and VCU struggled for the final 15 minutes to keep up. Size mismatches at several positions led to quick VCU fouls (although the officials wielded quick whistles at both ends) and Tennessee ended up in the bonus by the 12-minute mark. The Vols' 13 second-half free throws helped insulate their lead, even with Rozzell breathing down their necks.
After a Tennessee made basket in the second half, Pearl yelled to gain the attention of guard Cameron Tatum, who was retreating back downcourt. Pearl pointed at VCU guard Rozzell and made a shooting motion with his right hand. Pearl received a quality scouting report (not that it mattered). Rozzell, who went 10-for-20 from long range in VCU's first three games, went 6-for-11 on threes Wednesday, almost single-handedly propelling the Rams' offense. Rozzell, a senior who made 29 percent of his threes as a sophomore and 42 percent as a junior, could be the best shooter and a crucial piece on a team full of quality marksmen.
VCU's problem ended up being the matchup that looked like its greatest advantage heading into the game. Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, he of the 50-plus percent assist rate entering Wednesday, had by far his worst game of the season against Tennessee. The 5-10 floor general made one of his ten shots, fouled out and committed three turnovers. Tennessee point guard Melvin Goins draped himself over Rodriguez every time the Rams' lead guard touched the ball, clogging up VCU's ball-screen heavy offense. Rodriguez was nursing an ankle injury from several weeks earlier and playing at between 60 and 70 percent, according to Smart.
"It took away from his explosiveness," Smart said of Rodriguez' injury. "He did such a great job all year getting by his man and creating shots for his teammates. I think the injury affected him, and Tennessee did a good job guarding him." With Rodriguez back at full strength and a lineup that is imposing by CAA standards, the Rams should look a lot better against lesser talent later in the season.
Villanova 82, UCLA 70
'Nova forward Mouphtaou Yarou was the under-the-radar star, grabbing ten first-half rebounds and 16 total boards to go with 13 points. The sophomore, who has been an outstanding rebounder for his entire collegiate career, entered Wednesday with an offensive rebound rate of 14.8 percent this season. Guard Corey Fisher did his best to keep up with Kemba Walker a few time zones away, scoring 26 points on 19 field goal attempts. Fellow guards Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns combined to add 35 points. UCLA (3-1) didn't quite have the horses to run with a Big East team such as Villanova -- we knew that coming in. It will be interesting to see how the Bruins deal with a VCU team that isn't short on athletes and can score either in the half-court or in transition. Looking past this weekend, things could get hairy for UCLA when it visits Kansas (no Selby, no matter) and meets BYU in Anaheim. Then again before making any bold proclamations about how the Bruins might suffer down the stretch, let's remember which conference they call home.
Villanova used a 14-2 run late in the first half to bury UCLA after the Bruins managed to hang tough for the first 15 minutes. The Bruins fell behind by 15 heading to halftime after going more than five minutes without a field goal. UCLA pulled within six late in the second half but struggled at the line as Villanova (5-0) patiently added points to the deficit.
From the Notebook
Two Tennessee players are enjoying homecomings this week in the Big Apple. Center Brian Williams hails from the Bronx and Tobias Harris is a Long Island native. Williams said although he only received eight tickets to dole out to friends and family, more than 50 showed up....VCU's pressure defense has forced opponents into turnovers on 24 percent of their possessions. Tennessee handled the press with ease and posted a more average 19 percent turnover rate. Said Pearl: "We did a good job with VCU's pressure. I thought we attacked it well and didn't turn it over much. We like to play fast and I think playing fast brings out the best in us....At 0.90 points per trip, VCU's offensive efficiency was the worst the Rams have posted since a 0.88 mark in a 62-57 loss to Northeastern on January 4....Villanova's Fisher shot 15 free throws and took 19 field goal attempts, a sky-high mark even for Jay Wright's frequent FT shooter.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.