Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 29, 2013

Virginia, Volunteers look for momentum

Associated Press

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This isn’t quite the way either Tennessee or Virginia expected to close out the calendar year.

Both teams opened the season with expectations of reaching the NCAA tournament after playing in the NIT last year. But after getting off to slower-than-anticipated starts, Virginia and Tennessee head into Monday’s matchup seeking to boost their postseason credentials.

“We definitely know the importance of this game because we know Virginia is also much better than their record,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said. “They’re capable of having a big night also. They’re a very grind-it-out type team. They’ll run out the shot clock and then score the ball. That can demoralize an opponent.”

Virginia opened the season ranked 24th, the first time the Cavaliers appeared in a preseason Top 25 since 2001-02. Tennessee was the first team listed in the “also receiving votes” section of the preseason poll.

They’ve struggled to live up that billing thus far.

Tennessee (7-4) won just six of its first 10 games to continue its recent history of sluggish starts. Virginia (9-3) posted consecutive losses at home to No. 4 Wisconsin — ranked eighth at the time — and at Green Bay before bouncing back with victories over Northern Iowa and Norfolk State in its last two games.

“We have been doing well lately, but we can still play better,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said last week after his team beat Norfolk State 66-56. “We haven’t played our best basketball but have found ways to win. We will need to improve to keep up in our league. I am encouraged but hopeful we will take another step.”

Virginia and Tennessee both could use a quality non-conference victory before opening league play. Virginia visits Florida State in its Atlantic Coast Conference opener Saturday. Tennessee hosts Division II program Tusculum on Saturday before beginning Southeastern Conference play Jan. 7 at LSU.

Each team tinkered with its rotation recently.

Tennessee forward Derek Reese earned his first playing time of the season last week and responded with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in an 82-67 triumph over Morehead State. In Virginia’s victory over Norfolk State, usual starter Akil Mitchell came off the bench for the first time since Jan. 19, 2012. Anthony Gill, who has made six starts this season, didn’t enter the game until the second half.

Virginia beat Tennessee 46-38 last year by holding the Volunteers to their third-lowest point total since the 1985 introduction of the shot clock. The Volunteers say they’d like to run and prevent Virginia from controlling the tempo.

“We’re better when we’re running the ball,” Stokes said. “That’s my opinion. I just want to make sure we push the ball against Virginia this upcoming game.”

This game is particularly important for Tennessee, which doesn’t have as strong a record as Virginia and plays in a weaker conference.  Playing in the ACC should give Virginia plenty more opportunities to earn the types of conference wins that could impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.

Tennessee already dug itself a hole by losing at home to North Carolina State on Dec. 18. The Vols don’t want to fall at home to an ACC team again before beginning their SEC schedule.

“I talk about it all the time,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Regardless of the opponent, how tough or how talented the opponent, you’ve got to protect your home court. That’s the most important thing. Find any way possible to win home games.”