Putting football on the back burner

 

By Steve Williams

Need to get away from football for a while? After NFL action and 40 bowl games, including the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day, I expected so.

Today’s topic: UT basketball … and ladies first.

Before we get too carried away with our Lady Vols, there were still two Southeastern Conference teams – South Carolina and Mississippi State – ahead of them in The AP Top 25 basketball rankings last week.

Tennessee had climbed to No. 7 in the nation with its 12-0 record – the program’s best start since 2005.

However, South Carolina (11-1) was sitting pretty at No. 4 and State was 13-0 and No. 5.

The Lady Vols’ restoration project won’t be complete until they are back on top in the league, a place where they once resided for years.

Holly Warlick has this team headed in that direction, but longtime Lady Vol faithful have two dates circled on their calendars – Jan 14 at Columbia, S.C. and Jan. 21 when Mississippi State comes to town – in which they are anxious of seeing the results.

In between those two Sunday afternoon battles will be a Thursday night non-conference game at No. 2 Notre Dame on ESPN. That will be another measuring stick.

This season has been much more enjoyable, as was expected long before the first jump ball. Heading into this past Sunday’s game at Kentucky, Tennessee was averaging 88.3 points per game and winning by an average scoring margin of 26.4 points.

Seniors Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell were averaging 17.9 and 16.4 points, respectively. The freshmen trio of Anastasia Hayes, Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook were combining for 33.6 points.

Their biggest win of the year thus far was an 82-75 decision over No. 2 Texas at Thompson-Boling Arena. But it was only a start to where they want to go.

That’s the Final Four, a place they used to visit regularly. The Lady Vols haven’t been there since 2008.

South Carolina and Mississippi State, however, met there in the finals last season, with the Lady Gamecocks winning 67-55. State even knocked out No. 1 UConn 66-64 in the semis.

Tennessee women’s basketball has more tradition than those two SEC programs combined, but can it finally step back into the spotlight this March?

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s men went 9-2 before the Christmas break and wasn’t far off from being 11-0.

In their 85-76 loss to then No. 3 and now No. 1 Villanova in the Bahamas, the Vols led by 12 at halftime. In their 78-73 loss to No. 7 North Carolina in Knoxville, they led for over 37 minutes of the game but just couldn’t drive in that final nail.

Where would Tennessee be ranked had it won those two games?

I throw that question out there for anyone except SEC media members who predicted Rick Barnes’ team to finish 13th in the league this season.

With their solid pre-conference play behind them, the Vols have put themselves in good position to contend for a NCAA berth this year.

They beat No. 16 Purdue on Paradise Island and won at Georgia Tech and at Wake Forest.

A deep bench has been one key to their success. Going into this past Saturday’s SEC opener at Arkansas, seven players were averaging between 20 and 27 minutes per game.

Tennessee also was working the ball around (17.8 assists per game) and taking care of the ball (13.7 turnovers per game). A .395 team shooting percentage from 3-point range was huge, too.

Individually, Grant Williams was tops in scoring (15.4) and rebounding (6.6). Sophomore guard and Carter High product Jordan Bowden was averaging 12 points and shooting a sizzling 62 percent from 3-point land. Admiral Schofield was averaging 11.9 points. Kyle Alexander’s improvement inside has been tremendous and he’s averaging 6.5 rebounds.

Bruce Pearl and his Auburn Tigers will be in town tonight. They were 11-1 going into their weekend game against Cornell. For old times’ sake, we should welcome Pearl with a Brrrruuuuuuu.

Kentucky invades TBA Saturday night at 9. You can bet the place will be rocking.

After that, you should be ready for some more football.

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