By Jimmy Hyams
Is Tennessee a Final Four caliber team?
That topic reared its head once again after Tennessee toppled No. 10 Texas 82-71 Saturday in only the second matchup of top 10 teams in men’s basketball in Thompson-Boling Arena history.
It marked UT’s fifth straight home win over a top 10 opponent and it jumped the Vols from No. 4 to No. 2 in the AP poll.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Tennessee has no “impediment’’ to winning the national championship, other than an occasional scoring drought and “that’s not horribly unusual for teams.’’
Tennessee’s defense ahs been outstanding all season. The Vols lead the nation in field goal defense (34.4%) and 3-point field goal defense (21.9%). The 34.4% is believed to be the best in Division I since the 1970s. And UT’s defensive efficiency is ranked the best since KenPom began churning out that stat in 2001.
Can defense alone win a title?
“I can’t remember a bad defensive team that’s won a championship,’’ Bilas said, “but I also can’t remember an average offensive team winning it, either. If you go down through the stats and analytics of champions, usually they’re in the top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency.’’
Entering Saturday’s game against Texas, UT was 203rd in the nation in field-goal percentage. They were 215 last year.
That’s not the formula Bilas described, but UT has had moments where it shot exceedingly well, like the 69% marksmanship in a blowout win earlier this season against Mississippi State.
Bilas also noted Kansas lost by 30 points on Jan. 28 a year ago before marching to the national championship and North Carolina had the same record a year ago as it does now (15-6) before advancing to the Final Four.
In other words, there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg also thinks the Vols have championship criteria.
“When you look at this Tennessee team,’’ Greenberg said, “they can beat you in transition, they can beat you in the half court, they beat you with their defense, they beat you with their depth.
“Most importantly, you look at the DNA of teams that win championships, they have maturity and this team is a mature, experienced team.’’
Tennessee starts three seniors, a sophomore and a freshman and has two seniors that come off the bench.
Barnes met with his team on Friday and talked about Kentucky – not Texas.
Why Kentucky? Because that was the last “big’’ home game for the Vols and they failed the test. Despite jumping out to an 8-0 lead, the Vols fell 63-56 to the Wildcats and were outrebounded 43-23.
“We were terrible,’’ said Barnes, noting he felt his team was too “amped up’’ and “undisciplined.’’
Barnes said his team must ignore the hype that surrounds a big game, i.e., with ESPN’s Game Day crew in Knoxville for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
“If we’re going to be the team we need to be,’’ Barnes said, “it’s strictly business.’’`
It was strictly business for senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua, who had a career-high 27 points and eight rebounds in arguably his best game in a Tennessee uniform.
But Nkamhoua also had two points and two rebounds in recent games against Kentucky and LSU.
“I hope this gives him the confidence he can build on,’’ Barnes said.
Nkamhoua recognizes he needs to be more consistent and he knows he’s capable or more. He’s had four 20-point games this season and two 10-rebound games.
“it’s been three years working to get where we are now,’’ he said. “We’ve been getting better all year and we’ll keep getting better.
“We have to come in with the mature attitude that we haven’t arrived. We haven’t won a national championship. We haven’t won an SEC Championship (this season). We haven’t won a regular-season championship. We haven’t won anything. … We have proven nothing with this team, so we have to stay hungry.’’