Wiedmer: Is Tennessee becoming SEC's toughest team to beat?

Wiedmer: Is Tennessee becoming SEC's toughest team to beat?

January 13th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden (23) is defended by Texas A&M forward Robert Williams (44) and Texas A&M guard Savion Flagg (5) as he goes up for a basket in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)

Photo by Crystal LoGiudice

Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield (5) reacts to a basket by a teammate in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)

Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield (5) reacts to a...

Photo by Crystal LoGiudice

KNOXVILLE — The numbers could have strongly hinted of a disaster by University of Tennessee men's basketball standards. Matched against long and physical Texas A&M Saturday evening, the Volunteers' leading scorer for the season, Grant Williams, scored all of nine points against the Aggies, missing 10 of 13 shots from the field four nights after setting a career high at Vanderbilt with 37 points.

Then there was junior forward Admiral Schofield, whose 12 points weren't that much below his 13.4 scoring average, but his 4-of-12 field-goal shooting was among his worst showings of the season.

Yet the Thompson-Boling Arena scoreboard showed Tennessee comfortably on top at game's end, its 75-62 win almost enough to warm a 20-degree night for the 19,612 who roared their approval throughout the Big Orange's 12th win of the season and third straight Southeastern Conference victory after an 0-2 league start.

"We're a complete team," said Schofield, who also grabbed eight rebounds and handed out three assists while making two blocks and two steals. "We don't have to have Grant. We don't have to have me. We have a lot of depth. Guys know how to play their role here."

Once upon a time this season, those words could have been used to describe A&M. The Aggies won their first seven games, including a 23-point rout of current No. 2 West Virginia, which hadn't lost again until Saturday's setback against Texas Tech.

Yet injuries, suspensions and a tough early conference schedule have left A&M a shocking 0-5 in league play, a not-so-gentle reminder that life can change quickly in this season's SEC, which may be as tough from top to bottom as at any point in its 86-year history.

Schofield seems to think the Vols have learned that lesson well.

Wisely referring to that 0-2 league start, he said: "We can't relax. We tried to do that and we lost two straight."

But now they've won three straight in very impressive fashion, beating Kentucky by 11 in this same building a week earlier, winning by eight at Vanderbilt and now this, a 13-point victory over an Aggies bunch that once stood No. 5 nationally.

"You can't be a great defensive team unless you rebound the ball," winning coach Rick Barnes said after studying a stat sheet that showed the Vols with an impressive 38-29 margin against an A&M team that entered this game beating opponents by 8.5 boards a game.

"We've played five SEC games. There's too much basketball left to think we've got it all figured out, because we don't."

But the Vols look like a team that's getting close to figuring out who they are in terms of who does what every night, whether they're scoring or not. After struggling with the flu two weeks ago, sophomore point guard Jordan Bone scored 10 points and handed out four assists. Sophomore Jordan Bowden led the scoring with 15 points and also had three steals. Reserve Jalen Johnson didn't score but had two assists.

Finally, junior post player Kyle Alexander — with his two sisters and parents having arrived from Canada — tossed in 14 points and hauled in six rebounds. His up-and-under move late against All-SEC post player Kyle Davis might have drawn the biggest applause of the night.

"Kyle's a scorer," Schofield said. "He'd just rather block shots and rebound."

Come late Saturday, he was also a fighter, or at least a stand-your-ground guy. Pulled to the ground fighting for a rebound, he got up as if he was ready to throw a punch.

"I've never seen that (from Kyle)," Schofield said with a grin. "And I've roomed with him three years."

Added Barnes regarding Alexander's potential: "What we've said to him all along is he's a junior now. We shouldn't have to be talking about, 'Where did he go?' or 'Where were you tonight?' We're not asking him to do a lot of great things, but what we need him to do, he needs to be doing it every single night. That's defense, rebounding, and he can score the ball. You saw that tonight."

Alexander was mostly glad his parents got to see him play well in a victory.

"They were here for the North Carolina game," he said of that mid-December loss. "I'm glad they got to see me play in a win."

This one felt bigger than most wins because A&M arrived the more desperate team, already 0-4 in league play, but finally back to full strength for the first time in a month. Beyond that, the Aggies' size figured to hurt UT near the goal on both offense and defense. Instead, the Vols made one more field goal, dominated the glass and shot 15 more free throws, making 14 more.

Said Aggies coach Billy Kennedy afterward: "We lost to a better team. They're playing about as well as anyone in the country defensively and offensively."

The Ken Pomeroy statistical numbers back him up. Only four teams in the country rank in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, those being Gonzaga, Michigan State, Purdue (whom UT has beaten) and the Big Orange.

Said Schofield of how that's come to pass: "We are going to be the toughest team in the country."

Playing as they did on Saturday, they just might also become the SEC's toughest team to beat.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com