The Arizona Wildcats face another challenge to their unbeaten record when they visit the Tennessee Volunteers in a pre-Christmas clash that starts a 4-game road trip.
Tennessee is sitting at 8-2 overall and is ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25, while the UA is 11-0 and sitting at No. 6.
It’s been more than 20 years since these teams met, with the Wildcats beating the Vols in Albuquerque to open the 1998 season. A lot has changed for both programs in that time, and to help us better understand the UA’s latest opponent we reached out to Nick Carner of SB Nation sister site Rocky Top Talk.
Here are his descriptive answers to our basic questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Tennessee has the No. 2 defense in the country in terms of efficiency, according to KenPom.com. What do the Vols do on that side of the ball that makes them so effective, and do you think that will be the case against Arizona and its nation-leading scoring offense?
Nick Carner: “Tennessee finished fourth in Bart Torvik’s defensive efficiency rankings last season and lost Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and shot-blocking menace Yves Pons from that group. So, thus far, it’s been nice to see the team stay solid on that end of the court despite the roster adjustment. But I think that really speaks to Tennessee’s coaches. Rick Barnes has been here long enough that it’s fair to say a lot of the Vols’ defensive success starts with him and his long-time assistant and now Associate Head Coach Michael Schwartz. Schwartz basically runs the defense, and effort on that end isn’t negotiable if you expect to play with Barnes in charge. The Vols haven’t finished lower than 57th in defensive efficiency since Barnes’ first season back in 2016. That’s pretty good consistency.
“The aspect of this year’s bunch that stands out is their anticipation. Kennedy Chandler has really surprised me with how quick his hands are and how good he is at creating loose balls, whether it’s by timing a dig right for a steal or telegraphing a pass and grazing it with a couple finger tips either on its way out or on its way in. Wing Josiah-Jordan James is another guy to watch on defense—he’s averaging two steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He’s not the biggest guy or the most athletic, but he’s always around the ball.
“Your last point is another matter entirely. Let’s just say I’m hesitant to be fully bought-in on this year’s defense just because the going hasn’t gotten all that tough, yet, and I think Arizona presents the toughest nut to crack of the year, beyond Villanova, who the Vols lost to earlier in the year. The Vols are good defensively, but I think Arizona is better on offense than Tennessee is on defense.”
Freshman guard Kennedy Chandler seems as good as advertised. What makes him so special, and how does Tennessee ensure he doesn’t have a game like he did against Villanova (1 for 9 from the field) or Texas Tech (4 of 13, 5 turnovers)?
“Chandler’s great, for sure. He’s so quick, and his acceleration puts more onus on secondary defenders than is typical. And then despite his size—he’s probably 6-foot even—he’s a good finisher at the bucket with his shooting percentage there sitting around 60. His best scoring game thus far came against Colorado when the Buffs started the game switching all the 1-5 pick & rolls but kept doing it, without any adjustment, even though Chandler was steadily getting buckets from the mismatches. But he’s run into problems against teams that keep him from getting easy deuces at the rim—like ‘Nova and Tech. I fully expect Chandler to struggle with Arizona’s height in the middle.
“This sounds like a cop out, and maybe it is, but it’s also true: the most important thing Tennessee can do to help Chandler is shoot the ball well. If the Vols can benefit from Chandler’s driving ability by hitting open looks on drive-and-kick chances without relying on him to score 20-ish points at the rim, the Vols can give Arizona a good game. Santiago Vescovi, Justin Powell, Zakai Zeigler and Victor Bailey are all decent-to-good outside shooters, but if they’re not making shots, then, well, yeah.”
How does UT plan to handle Arizona’s inside duo of Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis, who are both shooting better than 58 percent?
“Honestly, I don’t know. How does any team handle it? Neither guy seems to be a real threat from 3-point range, and I’d say that helps from a matchup standpoint. But Tennessee doesn’t have a rim-protecting shot blocker, and it doesn’t have much quality depth inside. You’re likely to see John Fulkerson and Olivier Nkamhoua down low most of the game, but Josiah-Jordan James can play some small-ball 4, too. So maybe Barnes goes that route and tries to spread the floor...? I really don’t know. It’s not real often you see a team with two basically 7-footers who can score so proficiently.
“Fulkerson is one of those guys who can be a frustrating matchup with post players due to his constant movement and energy. He’s been known to get in the head of opponents in the past—go check out the elbow he took from Florida’s Omar Payne in last year’s SEC Tournament. It would help things considerably if Fulkerson could wriggle his way to drawing a couple quick fouls on whichever big man he’s checking.”
What is Tennessee’s biggest flaw?
“Well, I’m not totally sure. There’s a few to choose from: it doesn’t get to the free throw line often enough, the reserve post players are either unproven or overmatched on talent, and the offense can look pretty bad on a poor shooting night. I reckon that last one is true for most teams and might sound silly but something to keep an eye on during the game—the Vols’ assist numbers. Unless Chandler is getting to the hoop or Vescovi goes off from deep, Tennessee’s offense doesn’t work if the team’s playing iso ball. If Tennessee can get to 20 assists, then the ball is moving and the Vols can play with anybody. If not, see (or, rather, don’t see) the Texas Tech game.”
The Vols’ most recent game, against in-state rival Memphis, was canceled right before tipoff due to Memphis’ COVID-19 issues. That means it will be 8 days between games. Will that in any way negatively impact them?
“I mean, maybe? With the way COVID is affecting sports in general right now, I’d probably prefer the team kept to itself as much as possible, I guess? Games around the holidays are sometimes more difficult anyway, since these are college kids and their minds are on the distractions that come for everybody this time of year. But I’m okay with the extra time off right now. James has missed some time already this year, and Fulkerson broke his thumb right before the season started. So maybe it’ll give those guys a few extra days to get as right as possible.”
Prediction time: who wins this big nonconference matchup and heads into the Christmas break on a high note? Give us a score prediction.
“I feel pretty comfortable giving the nod to Arizona here. Let’s go 93-79 ‘Cats.”