Jimmy’s blog: Vols knock off top-ranked Alabama with stout defense

Jimmy’s blog: Vols knock off top-ranked Alabama with stout defense

By Jimmy Hyams

You have often heard this season that Tennessee was a Final Four caliber team.

You heard it from Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Mark Few of Gonzaga after a scrimmage and exhibition game.

You heard it after Tennessee clobbered Kansas 64-50 and mauled Mississippi State 87-53.

You heard it after the Vols tamed Top 10 Texas 82-71 as recently as Jan. 28.

But there was the home loss to a slightly above average Kentucky team on Chris Lofton Day.

There was the 13-point loss at Florida.

There was the 46-43 win over Auburn in which UT shot less than 30% from the field for the fourth time this season.

Then came the 3-point buzzer beater losses to unranked Vanderbilt and Missouri.

Will the real Tennessee team stand up?

Maybe it did against top-ranked Alabama before a sold-out crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee took charge in the second half and outlasted Alabama for an impressive 68-59 victory that pinned the first SEC loss of the season on the Crimson Tide and fortified UT’s NCAA Tournament resume – not to mention a double bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament.

It was a terrific bounce back after two gut–wrenching defeats.

Tennessee’s top-ranked defense returned to form as the Vols scored 26 points off 19 Alabama turnovers. The Vols held Bama to 35.4% shooting from the field and 9 of 24 on 3-point tries.

And Tennessee won despite shooting 36.5% from the field and only 6 of 23 from beyond the arc.

Was this performance worthy of Final Four speculation? Did it make you think the Vols are capable of making a run in the NCAA Tournament?

Yes. But this is a team that still hasn’t shown much consistency – except on defense.

Offense is the main culprit, but UT has won twice against ranked opponents when shooting less than 30%. It has is 10-4 when shooting less than 44%. It beat the No. 1 in the nation shooting less than 40%.

But as we all know, one bad shooting night can ruin an NCAA run.

Tennessee assistant Rod Clark said he was glad UT played Alabama last night because, after two touch losses, it’s not hard to get up play the No. 1 team in the country.

He also said point guard Zakai Ziegler would be ready, saying he would take Ziegler “over anybody in the country.’’

Clark: “He’s electric. He’s a competitor. He’s tough. He’s gritty.’’ He said the Vols must pulls the reigns on him sometimes because he’s like a caged dog a lot of times. He just wans to go out and bite everybody.’’

Ziegler took a bit out of Alabama, and so did his teammates.

UT is now 5-15 against teams ranked No. 1 in the nation.

 The Vols hit all four of my keys entering the game.

  1. Defend the 3-point line. UT allowed Vanderbilt to hit 10 treys and Missouri was 14 of 26 from beyond the arc. Alabama hit 37.5% (9×24).
  2. A big defensive effort from center Jonas Aidoo. Aidoo blocked three shots, effected others and added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
  3. Contain the SEC’s leading scorer, Brandon Miller (18.8 points per game). Miller scored 15 on 4 of 11 shooting with Jahmai Mashack as the primary defender.
  4. A strong performance from Ziegler. The sophomore had 15 points and eight assists.

Will Tennessee play like a Final Four caliber team this Saturday at Kentucky?

Nobody knows for sure. But we do know they are capable of an outstanding performance.

Alabama can attest to that.

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