Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl isn’t just playing what may be his last game this season against Michigan.
Recently, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton has commented that he still doesn’t know if Pearl will be returning this season. This may be his last game as the Volunteers’ head coach. Pearl’s position is currently under review after having recruits over to his house for a barbecue and then misleading investigators on who was involved.
The Wolverines (20-13 overall, 9-9 Big Ten) won the most recent matchup the two teams had, 87-52 on Dec. 2 1985. But nobody who will take the court this Friday when these two teams rematch would have been born yet and Pearl’s distractions didn’t exist then.
With Michigan trailing behind the Volunteers with an all-time 4-5 record, the Wolverines will get a chance on Friday to advance out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time since Michigan coach John Beilein took the helm.
Michigan has been playing arguably as hot as any other team in the country. After starting the Big Ten season 1-6, the Wolverines won nine of their last 13 games to propel them into the Tournament as an eighth seed.
On the other hand, Tennessee (19-14, 8-8 SEC) has slowed down. The Volunteers have lost seven of their last 11 games and are coming off of an 85-74 blowout loss to Florida.
The only thing the two teams actually do share in common is their early-season matchups with Oakland, who won the Summit league and was awarded an automatic bid to the tournament. Tennessee was upset by Michigan’s neighbors, 89-82 in Knoxville, Tenn. Four days later, Oakland visited Ann Arbor and was delivered a ruthless 69-51 loss by the Wolverines.
Michigan will travel to Charlotte, NC, essentially a bus trip for Tennessee. The Volunteers were upset 49-48 by Charlotte on Dec. 17 this season, the last time they played there.
In that game, Charlotte hit five 3-pointers and went 12-for-13 from the charity stripe to garner the upset win. Despite being outrebounded 41-36, Charlotte was still able to take the game to the final possession. Michigan’s game with the Volunteers may be similar.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl had his scouting team taking a lot of shots from the perimeter this week in practice. The Volunteers — just like anybody else should — is expecting the Wolverines to take advantage of its hot hand from 3-point range.
The Wolverines are the only team Tennessee will have played this year which starts four players under six-foot-five — center Jordan Morgan is six-foot-eight. But this does give Tennessee the rebounding advantage, which it is known to take advantage of.
“Rebounding is a big part of their game,” Beilein said. “Much like Michigan State and Ohio State, (Jared) Sullinger is a wonderful rebounder. It’s difficult to strategize against that other than we’ll put that bubble up on the rim today so no shot can go in and we’ll box out and box out and box out.”
Michigan can certainly take advantage of Tennessee’s unfamiliarity with a four-guard offense — the type of offense Beilein runs if he doesn’t have five guards playing.
Recently, the Wolverines have been winning games solely because of their 3-point success. With 43 percent of its shots being 3-pointers, Michigan has shot 39 percent from 3-point land in conference play — a lethal threat to a team like the Volunteers, who shoot just 29 percent from long range.
“Our 3-pointer is on,” Morgan said. “When our guards are hitting their shots that’s when our team’s at its best. They are known for their length and outrebounded their opponents. We are just ready to hit our shots and do what we can on the glass.”
Another advantage the Wolverines have is at point guard. Sophomore Darius Morris will have a noticeable size advantage against counterpart Melvin Goins. Goins — five inches shorter — will have his hands full if Tennessee does shut down Michigan’s shot like Pearl intends, and if they do, Morris is the next likely option.
“I’m getting better in the post,” Morris said. “I always practice my big man moves. I can sometimes use that to my advantage. In some games this year I have.”