The seventh-ranked Villanova Wildcats and the 24th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers will clash in the title games of the 2010 NIT Season Tip- Off from Madison Square Garden.
Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl has been in the news this week for the wrong reasons, as he has been suspended for the first eight games of the SEC season for misleading NCAA investigators who were checking into possible violations. Fortunately, the off-the-court drama hasn't affected the play of the Vols, who have won their first four games of this season. On Wednesday, the club showed a great deal of toughness to get past VCU by a 77-72 final. Tennessee is a member of the SEC and has been a perennial league title contender under Pearl.
Villanova competes in college basketball's best conference, the Big East, and the Wildcats seem to have as good a shot as any team of winning that league this season. They have played five games so far this season, and all of those have resulted in double-digit victories. Villanova earned its berth in today's title tilt with an 82-70 decision over UCLA on Wednesday, the first non-home game of the campaign for the 'Cats.
The Wildcats won both previous meetings with the Vols, the most recent of which took place in 1971.
Tennessee's leading scorer is a freshman, as 6-8 forward Tobias Harris has been as good as advertised. Through his first four collegiate games, Harris is scoring 16.0 ppg on 52.3 percent shooting from the floor, and he has flashes excellent range by knocking down 3-of-4 three-point attempts. Sure, Harris does lead the team with 14 turnovers, but young players are expected to make mistakes. Scott Hopson is close behind in scoring with 15.3 ppg, and Cameron Tatum provides 11.5 ppg for Pearl's bunch. The Vols are generating 76.0 ppg while surrendering 66.5 ppg to opponents. Hopson was terrific in the victory over VCU on Wednesday, as the standout guard posted 18 points and 11 rebounds in only 24 minutes before fouling out. Harris scored 15 points in that game, while Brian Williams grabbed 13 boards. Tennessee finished with a 54-45 advantage on the glass and held the Rams to 30.9 percent shooting from the field.
Corey Fisher is the leader of the Wildcats, and he is expected to challenge for Big East Conference Player of the Year honors this season. Against UCLA, the Villanova guard struggled with his shot, knocking down only 6-of-19 attempts from the floor. Fortunately, he was able to hit 14-of-15 free throws and finish with 26 points. Maalik Wayns tallied 19 points in that affair, and Corey Stokes posted 16 points. Mouphtaou Yarou was impressive against UCLA as well, posting 13 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes of action. The Wildcats earned a 28-18 advantage in points from the foul line, key to the victory. Through five games, Fisher is scoring 18.4 ppg despite his 39.1 percent overall shooting. Wayns provides 14.6 ppg and 6.2 apg, while Stokes nets 13.2 ppg. The Wildcats are scoring 80.4 ppg while limiting opponents to just 55.2 ppg on 33.4 percent shooting from the field, and they are also outrebounding foes by 11.0 rpg.
Give the Tennessee players a great deal of credit for remaining focused despite the off-the-court issues surrounding their coach. The Vols will fight hard today, but Villanova is simply the better team and will pull away in the second half.