Here are five thoughts after Tennessee's very impressive 83-76 win in Pittsburgh over the Panthers.
1. Tennessee has established itself as the Big East favorite. Now what about the SEC? After handling Big East co-favorite Villanova by 10 in the final of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden, the Vols manhandled Pitt on the road in the least-close seven-point game in recent memory. Tennessee led by as many as 21 in the second half and was in total control from the outset. Not bad for a team that was picked fourth in the SEC East in the league's preseason media poll.
With Florida struggling to find its form and Kentucky still managing the inconsistency of its youth, the window's open for Tennessee to claim the league's pole position. And, as if the Vols needed more help, they will be even deeper when Jeronne Maymon becomes eligible (and they get Renaldo Woolridge back from an ankle injury).
2. The Vols shake off adversity better than any team in the land. Any team has to overcome hurdles in the course of the season, but it almost appears the Vols play better with massive controversy swirling around the program. Since last New Year's Day, when four players were arrested for illegal weapon and drug possession that led to a dismissal and three suspensions and through Bruce Pearl's well-publicized eight-game SEC suspension and the still-looming NCAA ruling, the Vols have gone 25-7. That run includes wins over the Nos. 1 (Kansas 2010), 2 (Kentucky 2010) and 3 (Pitt, presently) teams in the country and an NCAA Tournament run that fell a basket short of the Final Four.
3. Pitt's offensive rebounding didn't yield its normal output. The Panthers had a lot of issues Saturday, but this was a major one. Pitt is not a tremendous shooting team, but it entered today with one of the most efficient offenses in the nation because of an amazing (and unsustainable) 48.5 percent offensive rebounding rate. The Panthers get a lot of their offense off second-chance points.
Now, look at what happened in the first half against Tennessee, when the game was fundamentally decided:
Pitt had four separate instances where it claimed two offensive rebounds on the same sequence, so there were really six possessions involved, even though it will go down as 10 offensive rebounds for the Panthers. Those 10 offensive boards, though, produced just three points, a staggeringly low yield given Pitt's numbers for the season, and even more amazing given Tennessee's starting big men (Tobias Harris and Brian Williams) combined to play just 22 minutes in the half.
In the stat books, today will go down as a 43.9 percent offensive rebounding rate for Pitt (18 offensive boards to 23 defensive rebounds for Tennessee). It wasn't the rebounding that let the Panthers down. It was what they did with the ball afterward.
4. Efficient Scotty Hopson = Very Dangerous Vols. You know Tennessee is going to get easy buckets in transition with its style but, despite the Vols' significant depth, they have been operating as a heavily two-headed offensive monster through seven games. Entering Saturday, Hopson was taking a conscience-lacking 34.1 percent of Tennessee's shots when he's on the floor, with Harris taking 28.6 percent of the field goal attempts in his minutes. Only one other Vol -- Cameron Tatum (23.0 percent) -- has even been at a solid contributor level in terms of shot frequency.
Hopson has improved his points per shot significantly this season, but that's mostly due to improvement from the free throw line. Before today, he wasn't shooting any better from the floor than he was last year, when he was at a high-but-more reasonable 26.1 percent shooting rate.
Hopson was sensational in this game, but he's not going to score 27 points on 13 field-goal attempts most nights. If he's going to be using the ball at anywhere this extent the rest of the way, how much he can cut down on the 5-for-14s will help determine just how lethal Tennessee can be.
5. Does today's result say more about Tennessee or Pitt? There are annual concerns about Pitt's top-end potential because of the lack of a classic star, although the current version has Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and the best quality depth of the Jamie Dixon era, so that's probably a bit outmoded for this season. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap and move on. Tennessee played a wonderful basketball game and Pitt wasn't very crisp at all, in large part because of how good and opportunistic the Vols were. Tennessee's production off fast breaks (primary and secondary) was a huge factor in the victory and shocking given Pitt's usual transition awareness.
The second week of December is far too early to sound an alarm on a supposedly elite team. What resonated more was how Tennessee significantly raised the bar on its own potential.