This was a huge game for a number of reasons. First and foremost, coming off the loss to $tate with Kentucky looming, we needed it to avoid another 3 game losing streak and a 2-3 conference record. But perhaps even more importantly, I wanted to see how we would respond following Coach Grant's remarks after the loss in $tarkville. In case you missed it, (and I apologize for not reporting it here), Coach Grant publicly called out players on the team without specifically naming them. I am paraphrasing, but he said we have some guys who are being selfish and not playing team basketball, and we need to get back to playing as a team. It's also interesting that he chose Trevor Lacey rather than one of the veterans to address the media. The fact that we came out flat and play uninspired basketball for much of the game is very concerning.
The Real Coach Stallings was present, presenting Barrett Jones with a sportsmanship award at halftime
We actually took an early 13-7 lead, mainly by forcing turnovers and getting into transition. Once Vandy was able to get control of the tempo, they dominated the game. Our defense kept it reasonably close, but they were able to burn us for a few open looks with their halfcourt offense. Vandy is very precise with their screens and cuts. They took a 7 point lead into the half, and we opened the second half by putting Jacobs in the game for Randolph and playing a zone. Vandy made us pay by knocking down a few 3's and they pretty much maintained around a 20 point lead until we made a meaningless run in the final 4 minutes.
I have a lot of respect for the officiating profession. Calling basketball games is a lot more difficult than most realize. I have been doing it for years, and I can tell you very few will ever make it to the level of being invited to call major college basketball games. As I stated above, Vandy badly outplayed us, so the officials did not cost us the game. Nevertheless, the Dores were VERY physical in the post, a lot of contact, holds and pushes went uncalled. Furthermore, we were playing at home. We only shot one free throw in the first half, and it's not like we are a team that relies on the outside jump shot. We should get to the line more. I understand we are going to foul with our aggressiveness on defense, but at least give us the calls on both ends. We barely got into the bonus in the 2nd half, and that was well after the game was decided. We essentially played 2 straight games without getting into the bonus. I can live with it on the road, but not at home. It seemed like EVERY single 50/50 type block-charge call went against us. If anything, it should be the other way around at home. At the high school level, coaches have the right to scratch an official with no questions asked and that official cannot be assigned to their games. I have no idea if that is the case in the SEC or not, but it should be. I don't recall the exact numbers, but Coach Grant's record in games officiated by Knoxville, TN resident and University of Tennessee graduate Mike Stuart is awful. I'm not suggesting that Mike Stuart is consciously, intentionally screwing us, but it sure seems that we get the short end of the stick most nights he calls.
A few minutes before Coach Grant picked up a technical foul, I mentioned that I hoped he would do so since we were getting beat badly and the players seemed to be getting frustrated and losing their focus, in part due to the calls not going their way. I thought it would be a good way to show the players he had their back and maybe inject some energy into the team. We had cut the lead to 13, and Green picked up a foul, and reacted in an animated matter. I'm not sure Grant was really that upset with that particular call (it looked to me like it was probably a foul, but he had let Vandy get away with much worse), if he was just stepping in to prevent Green from getting the T, or if he was upset with the inconsistency of how the game was being called. Unfortunately, they made both free throws then knocked down another 3 to make it a 5 point play.
Speaking of the officiating, had Vandy not been allowed to get away with such vicious illegal screens, one must wonder if we would not have suffered the injuries. Andrew Steele left the game looking very woozy, and I sure hope he doesn't have a concussion. He was clearly exhibiting concussion type symptoms. Nick Jacobs got tangled up with a 'Dore and appeared to twist his ankle. He returned, but was not able to run the floor. Gueye played in his place and did a decent job. I like Gueye's athletic ability, but he's still favoring a knee. Still, he looked a lot better than he did in his few brief minutes earlier in the season.
The injuries hurt us more than most realize. I've posted before about Steele's leadership ability which was clearly missing when he had to come out of the game. When we were down 20 with 8 minutes remaining he was practically begging the coaches to get back into the game. With Andrew and Nick out, the substitution patterns became even more jacked up than normal, and the resulting unusual lineups were not good for team chemistry.
Tony Mitchell did not score, and 5 of his 8 missed shots were from downtown. JaMychal Green scored only 6 points and did not get to the line once. We were completely dominated on the glass. We've got to get more out of our so called veteran leaders in these types of games. I am not saying this is who Coach Grant was referring to following the $tate loss, but it certainly seems reasonable to speculate such at this point.
If you are looking for a positive from this game, we didn't give up and actually clawed back to make the final score respectable. Levi Randolph had a good game and Hankerson reemerged and gave us some productive minutes. Otherwise, this game was unmitigated disaster.
In a sense, we got what we deserved as a fan base. In arguably the biggest game of this season, the crowd was pathetic. The student section was barely over half full. What the hell else is there to do in Tuscaloosa for a student at 6pm on a Thursday night? The rest of the arena was not much better. I doubt we had 10,000 in the house. I was even chastised by some douchebag behind me for loudly telling Mike Stuart that he sucks. Overall, just a bad performance by our team, coaches, and fans.
Up next, we face SEC leading and #2 ranked Kentucky in Rupp Arena at noon eastern, 11 central Saturday. UK's only apparent weakness is giving up the outside shot, and that's not exactly our forte. I give us a less than 1% chance of winning this game. The bad news, we are about to be 2-3. The good news, as our young team improves, the worst part of the schedule will be behind us and we will be in position to close strong in conference. I will try to post a recap of the Bloodbath in the bluegrass after I return home Sunday.