Arizona has only lost five games under Tommy Lloyd, and the first came just over a year ago when the Wildcats went to Tennessee on the Wednesday before Christmas and fell 77-73.
Now comes the rematch, with the sixth-ranked Volunteers coming to McKale Center on Saturday night, and the stakes will be even higher than a year ago.
To better understand this Vols team, we reached out to Nick Carner of SB Nation sister site Rocky Top Talk. Below are his lyrical answers to our tone deaf questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: When Tennessee handed Arizona its first loss last December, the Vols looked like a definite national title contender. But they ended up losing three of the next five and went out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. What makes this team more likely to make a deep run?
Nick Carner: “Well, I don’t really know that this team is any more likely to make a March Madness run than last year’s team. But I’m as cynical as cynical gets. This team shows the potential to be just as good on defense as last year’s squad, but the offense is not to be trusted. You just can’t count on it, and outside of freshman Julian Phillips, there’s not a guy who can get to the rim regularly. That’s, well, troublesome.
“Santiago Vescovi hasn’t looked like himself yet this season, and recently it’s come out that he’s dealing with a shoulder injury, which could be the explanation for his sub-30 percent mark from deep. Josiah-Jordan James has never really been a guy to light up the scoreboard, but he does so many positive things, like run the offense in a pinch, hit catch-and-shoot 3s and crash the offense glass. But he’s dealing with a knee injury that sounds like it’s gonna be something that’s going to need to be managed all season. Those two guys are absolutely critical to any success Tennessee would have come March.
“It’s early in the year, so I’m not jumping out of any windows or anything yet, but I’ll have to see something resembling some offensive consistency before I proclaim this team as anything but another disappointment come tournament time.”
The Vols’ defense has been tremendous to this point, ranking first in KenPom in defensive rating, effective field goal defense and 3-point shooting D. What makes their defense so hard to score against, and do you think it’s built to deal with Arizona’s frontcourt?
“Well, for one, defensive effort is non-negotiable with Rick Barnes. If this season’s team maintains close to the level of defense it’s playing now, the Vols will have finished inside the top-5 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Bart Torvik) for three straight seasons. This squad has a mixture of veteran guile and youthful athleticism that come together in a way that forces opposing offenses to be crisp with their passes and strong at the hoop.
“At the point of attack, you’re likely to get Zakai Ziegler pestering the ball handler with his incessant pressure or sophomore wing Jahmai Mashack. Mashack is long, quick and all-around athletic. Not many folks will call Vescovi an imposing athlete, and we don’t want him guarding the ball, but he’s got great anticipation and leads the team averaging 2.6 steals per game. The Vols are getting seven takeaways a game from these three guys combined.
“Barnes has always made deflections a point of emphasis, and he can throw long and rangy lineups out there where his players are reaching and stretching and jumping into passing lanes in hopes of creating turnovers. Most everybody on the team is relatively good at fighting through or around screens, too. Sophomore post player Jonas Aidoo adds a dimension Tennessee hasn’t had in a while with his ability as a rim protector. But he’s young, and his frame still needs filling out. He sat out against Maryland with flu-like symptoms, so hopefully he’s back against y’all with a week between then and Saturday’s matchup.
“Is Tennessee equipped to handle Arizona’s frontcourt? I don’t know. Can any team really match up with Tubelis and Ballo? I assumed Tubelis would make a leap this year, but man. He’s scoring 1.5 points per-possession in transition. What do you even do with that?
“Last year, in Knoxville, the Vols got the benefit of the home whistle which landed both (Christian) Koloko and Tubelis in foul trouble. I don’t see that happening again, especially considering Tennessee doesn’t have foul-drawing machine John Fulkerson down low anymore.”
For as good as the defensive numbers of been, though, Tennessee’s offense has looked fairly pedestrian. Who are the most dangerous weapons, and why?
“Even with Vescovi’s shooting numbers down this season, he creates gravity with the threat of his shot making. He just absolutely has to be accounted for, at all times. Tyreke Key—a Tennessee native who transferred from Indiana State‚is a walking bucket, but it seems like he’s thinking more about making the right pass, all the time, rather than just going out and scoring points, which is what the team needs from him. He went for 26 in the preseason exhibition game against Gonzaga but hasn’t shown that same ability to score in bunches since. Don’t get me wrong—he’s hit double figures in six of UT’s 10 games, but still, this offense needs more from him.
“Phillips is still finding his way on the offensive end, but he generates a lot of looks near the hoop and a lot of free throw attempts. He’s leading the team in per-game scoring, mostly due to his 25-point outburst against USC. He hit 10 of his 12 free throws against the Trojans and leads the team in total attempts from the charity stripe.
“Ziegler is quick enough to get to the hoop, and he’s finishing there better so far this year than he did last season. But he’s small, and it’s not easy for small guards to finish in traffic. He shot about 35 percent from deep last year, and he’s below that mark so far this year, but I expect that to tick back up as the season progresses.
“Nobody in the Vols’ front court is a real threat to score in many one-on-one matchups, and neither of the starters at PF and C, Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic, respectively, have great hands. If I’m Tommy Lloyd, and my team has struggled to force turnovers, I’d send some doubles at UT’s post players and make those guys make decisions with the ball.”
Tennessee will be playing its first road game of the season, with a 10:30 p.m. ET tip time and likely an officiating crew more familiar to the Pac-12 team than the SEC one. How do you think the team will handle these conditions?
“I don’t know how much the conditions will play a factor. Everybody on this team has played road games before, except for the freshman Phillips. Having James would be a big help, as he’s the most experienced and poised player on the team. But there’s no question that this trip won’t be like playing in the Bahamas. I would say it’s likely the team gets rattled at one or multiple points during the game. That’s kinda just the nature of college hoops, though, too.”
Speaking of Pac-12, Tennessee lost by 12 to Colorado in Nashville, needed overtime to beat USC in the Bahamas, and those are the only opponents to score more than 53 points. Why have the Vols looked their most vulnerable against the Conference of Champions?
“Well, I mean, obviously we’re just fighting on behalf of the entire SEC to the inevitable end of bending the knee to the Almighty Pac-12 that hasn’t won a title since, well, you guys know when.”
Prediction time. Does Tennessee complete the home-and-home sweep, picking up a major resume-building win just before SEC play begins, or does Arizona avenge last year’s loss?
“I’m taking Arizona here, with a relative comfort in the scoring differential. The Vols haven’t played enough games yet with a healthy complement of their regular contributors to figure things out on the road against a team with Arizona’s talent/ coaching/ offensive firepower. I figure Tennessee’s post guys get in foul trouble pretty quick, and the ‘Zona bigs feast.”