The unbeaten Arizona Wildcats take their perfect record to one of the biggest college basketball stages in the country, both literally and figuratively, when they face the Tennessee Volunteers on Wednesday night.
Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., has a capacity of 21,678, which is the fourth-largest in Division I and third-largest for an on-campus arena. This year the 19th-ranked Vols (8-2) are averaging more than 16,000 fans, which ranks seventh in Division I, and in the last two non-COVID seasons they drew around 19,000 per game to rank fourth nationally.
No. 6 Arizona (11-0) is 2-0 on the road this season, winning by 25 at Oregon State and rallying from 13 down in the first half to beat Illinois. The Wildcats last won their first three road games in a season in 2017-18.
Here’s what to watch for in this big pre-Christmas tilt:
Clash of the (defensive) titans
Arizona’s play on the defensive end has been vastly overshadowed by its offense, which leads the country in scoring (91.0 points per game), scoring margin (+28.2) and assists per game (21.8). The Wildcats rank seventh in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, which would be their best finish since 2014-15 when they were third after being No. 1 in 2013-14.
Tennessee is No. 2 in defensive efficiency, holding opponents to 38 percent shooting and 57.9 points per game, with only one opponent (Villanova) averaging more than 1 point per possession.
What are the Vols doing on defense to make scoring so difficult? UA coach Tommy Lloyd said coach Rick Barnes and his staff have mimicked the approaches of some of the top defensive schemes in the country to get to where they’re at.
“You watch Baylor play defense? And Texas Tech? Pretty much copy and paste that,” he said. “They’re getting after you. Tons of ball pressure. There’s a lot of switching. They’re doing a really good job keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor and kind of disrupting the normal flow of your movement in your offense. So it’s going to be a great challenge. But, it’s a challenge we need.”
Tennessee forces 17.8 turnovers per game, getting a takeaway on more than 25 percent of defensive possessions, and collects 10.6 steals per game.
Facing a freshman phenom
Tennessee’s leading scorer is point guard Kennedy Chandler, a 6-foot freshman who is averaging 14.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He was the No. 9 player in the 2021 recruiting class, per 247Sports, and is a projected first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Chandler had a career-high 27 points in a win at Colorado, making 12 of 14 2-pointers, but in Tennessee’s losses to Villanova and Texas Tech he was 5 of 22 from the field and had 15 total points.
Dalen Terry often guards an opponent’s top perimeter player, but Kerr Kriisa may handle this responsibility since he has three inches on Chandler and because it will enable Terry to cover 6-foot-3 shooting guard Santiago Vescovi, who has hit 27 3-pointers.
A favorable frontcourt matchup
Tennessee has been outrebounded four times this season, including in both losses. Frontcourt starters John Fulkerson and Olivier Nkamhoua are listed at 6-foot-9 and 6-8, respectively, while 7-foot junior Uros Plavsic is playing less than 10 minutes per game.
This makes for great conditions for the UA’s bigs, whether that be starters Christian Koloko and Azuolas Tubelis or one Oumar Ballo comes in for one or the other.
Ballo and Koloko paired up for a 3 1/2-minute stretch during the second half against Cal Baptist on Saturday and Lloyd liked what he saw enough that he could use that lineup more as the season goes on.
“I’m not uncomfortable doing it,” he said. “I still think having Azuolas out there is a little more mobile, can play inside and outside a little bit, a little more comfortable with that. I gotta probably do a better job developing that lineup offensively. I think defensively we have a plan for that lineup. As luck would have it ... the other team always has a pretty good coach too, right? The moment we went with two bigs they went zone, and we honestly haven’t spent one second on zone offense with with two bigs on the floor, with Oumar and C-Lo on the floor together. We’ll see how that super lineup or the giant lineup, whatever you want to call it, we’ll see how that develops.”
Arizona and Tennessee have only played four times, the last matchup in 1998, but the programs have a few loose connections from their pasts and one present link.
J.P. Prince, a wing who played for the UA from 2005-06, transferred to Tennessee midway through the 2006-07 season and ending up starting 56 games for the Vols from 2007-10. And both schools have been led by Kevin O’Neill, who was Tennessee’s head coach from 1994-97 and served as Arizona’s interim head coach in 2007-08 (and was an assistant there from 1986-89).
Lastly, the Vols’ current coaching staff includes Justin Gainey, who was on Sean Miller’s staff at Arizona from 2018-20.