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Pregame Party: Tennessee at Georgetown Game Preview

The Hoyas seek their second high-profile win of the season Friday night.

Your nationally ranked Georgetown Hoyas take a break from bidding adieu to old conference foes and welcoming new ones to, you know, play some basketball Friday night when they host the Tennessee Volunteers as part of the Big East-SEC Challenge (actually, this year it's the SEC-Big East Challenge-fun! ). Whatever the moniker, this event last year produced one of Georgetown's most exciting games in a season full of them, a last-second victory at Alabama on a Hollis Thompson three. So what does this year's Hoya team, already with a heart-stopper under its belt, have in store for us Friday night? Let's see.

It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. The Vols and Hoyas have met just twice in their history, most recently a Tennessee win in the 2008 Old Spice Classic, a relatively forgettable early-season tournament. At the time, Tennessee was riding high, en route to the fourth of five straight 20-win Volunteer squads under then-coach Bruce Pearl, a stretch that included two trips to the Elite Eight and another to the Sweet Sixteen. As it turned out, though, Pearl already had sown the seeds of his downfall. The previous summer, the Tennessee headman hosted recruit Aaron Craft (now at Ohio State) at his house for a cookout. While that alone was an NCAA no-no, Pearl went two steps further, first telling Craft and others to lie about it, then following his own advice and fibbing to NCAA investigators. That investigation eventually overshadowed Tennessee's 2010-11 campaign, which ended in an embarrassing 30-point NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan, after which Pearl was fired.

Enter Cuonzo Martin. Just when Pearl's ignominious departure threatened to derail the fragile progress of a traditionally middling program, Martin--once a second fiddle to Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson's Purdue teams and more recently the head coach at Missouri State--brought much-needed energy to the Volunteers. While there were bumps in the first season (a 3-6 start lowlighted by a home loss to Austin Peay), Tennessee rounded into form (particularly thanks to a mid-season arrival discussed more within), finishing 10-6 in the SEC and narrowly missing an NCAA bid. Returning seven of nine rotation players this year, things were looking up on Rocky Top.

Well, make that six out of nine. Tennessee's fortunes for this season took an immediate and indefinite hit when preseason second-team All-SEC selection Jeronne Maymon (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg last season), the Vols' second-leading scorer last year, wasn't available for the season opener, perhaps because of a slowed recovery from knee surgery. Maymon hasn't played since (and is unlikely to play Friday), and Tennessee has been inconsistent thus far, going 4-1, suffering a rout at the hands of Oklahoma State before rebounding for decisive wins against UMass and Oakland.

Update: Martin reportedly said on Wednesday that Maymon hasn't practiced yet and likely won't play for a few weeks.

Volunteers to Know. Maymon's absence has negated what would otherwise be a mighty front court, one also manned by sophomore post Jarnell Stokes (15.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who enrolled mid-season last year after being denied eligibility to play for his high school team. Stokes measures at 6'8", 270 lb., and plays every inch of it, carving up space down low and finishing with either hand. The outside to Stokes's inside is junior point guard Trae Golden (12.4 ppg, 5.2 apg, 2.8 rpg), who both dishes out assists and gets to the line at an elite rate. Golden's primary weakness is his judgment, as he has a tendency to take poorly chosen shots and to turn the ball over.

A supporting quartet fills in the gaps between point and post. Guard Skylar McBee (7.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.0 apg, 31.7 3FG%) is an outside threat who rarely steps inside the arc (just two 2-pt. FGA this season) and is a defensive liability. Forward Kenny Hall (7.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg) can be erratic except on the boards, where he's solid. Wing Josh Richardson (8.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is a strong defender but still is developing offensively. Finally, sixth man Jordan McRae (10 ppg) can dominate physically but tends to fall in love with his perimeter game.

When Tennessee Has the Ball.

  • Vols' strength: getting to the line. Tennessee earns lots of chances at easy points, averaging more than 25 free-throw attempts per game thus far this season. Stokes (6.6 FTA/game) earns his freebies on post-ups, while Golden (5.6) does so by slashing to the rim. Once they get to the stripe, the Volunteers have struggled, shooting under 66 percent from the line, with Stokes (54.5 FT%) bricking more than his share. But no one wants to leave the game to the arc of a series of uncontested set shots.
  • Hoyas' strength: defensive rebounding. Without Maymon, the Vols have been mediocre on the offensive glass, grabbing just 34 percent of their own misses. Despite frontcourt departures, Georgetown has continued to control the defensive glass, with Otto Porter (8 drpg, excluding a six-minute appearance against Duquesne) and Greg Whittington (7.4) crashing the boards the most.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Post defense. Stokes is a handful down low. Mikael Hopkins is coming along offensively (at least in raw numbers--he's still not very efficient, as noted by Luke Winn), but has been inconsistent on defense, occasionally losing focus and as a result costing a basket here or a foul there. He also will have trouble matching Stokes's strength. Battling his opponent to a draw or near it would do wonders for the Hoyas.
    • Foul trouble. The foul bug bit the Hoyas against Indiana, thanks at least in part to a shortened rotation. Against a Volunteer team that thrives on drawing whistles, Georgetown can ill afford a thoughtless reach-in or over-the-back foul.
    • Zone. The Hoyas have employed the zone successfully for stretches against UCLA and Indiana, though JTIII has been reluctant to commit to it for a half or longer. Will Georgetown switch to the 2-3 to stifle Golden's drives? Will McBee, Tennessee's primary outside threat, heat up long enough to keep the Hoyas in man-to-man?

When Georgetown Has the Ball.

  • Hoyas' strength: pound the paint. Georgetown is shooting a sterling 56 percent from two this season, one of the top 20 marks in the country. While high-efficiency two-pointers are roughly synonymous in my mind with Porter (52 2FG%), Whittington has been the real star, converting nearly two-thirds of his attempts inside the arc thus far. Markel Starks (19/36 2FG), Nate Lubick (16/25), and Jabril Trawick (7/11) also have made more two-pointers than they've missed. Tennessee is no slouch defensively, but ranks just 121st nationally in defending the two. Patiently working the ball inside, whether off the bounce or the pass, will be the Hoyas' ticket to success Friday night.
  • Vols' strength: defensive rebounding. Georgetown has been solid at gathering its opponents' misses but woeful at generating its own second chances, as the Hoyas have grabbed barely a quarter of their own misses. Tennessee ranks in the top quarter of the country in preventing those second chances, thanks not just to Stokes down low but also to Richardson and Hall. Don't expect a ton of Hoya offensive boards in this one.
  • Three things to watch:
    • Foul trouble. The Vols have two defensive weaknesses, the first of which is that they rate in the bottom quarter of the country in sending their opponents to the free-throw line. Stokes fouled out of one game this year, while the rest of the top six all have come close. A couple of early whistles could drastically change Tennessee's rotation.
    • Turnovers. Tennessee's other main defensive shortcoming has been forcing turnovers, a category in which they rank in the bottom 20 percent nationally. The Vols are particularly atrocious at forcing live-ball turnovers, stealing the ball on just 6 percent of possessions. Georgetown has been just so-so at protecting the ball this season. If the Hoyas don't earn extra possessions on the offensive glass, they scarcely can afford to give them away as turnovers.
    • Guard rotation. While Starks's minutes have stayed high, JTIII has played Trawick and freshman D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera a wide range of minutes over the past several games. DSR has obvious offensive gifts but has been inconsistent, to put it mildly, on defense. Trawick has seen success slashing to the rim but occasionally struggles to find his way into an offensive rhythm.

Prediction. Georgetown's early season opponents seem to be suffering from roster instability. Florida had two absences from a game that was cut short; UCLA lost Tyler Lamb to injury (then, as it turned out, transfer) only to gain Shabazz Muhammad; Indiana had those two guys whose AAU coach once bought Bobby Knight a cup of coffee. Friday night, the Volunteers figure to be without Maymon, and next week's opponent, Texas, is in limbo while it awaits an eligibility ruling on its point guard Myck Kabongo. Even without one of their posts, though, the Volunteers are a talented squad that can pose match-up problems for the Hoyas. I expect a half-court, defensive slog that Georgetown should win if it reins in Stokes, avoids foul trouble, works the ball inside on offense. Georgetown 65, Tennessee 58.