For the third time in four seasons, the Gonzaga Bulldogs face the Tennessee Volunteers. Mark Few and the Zags got the best of Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes in his first two seasons on the job, but Barnes has his best team since arriving in Knoxville and will be hoping they’re up to the job of knocking off the top team in the country.
Tennessee has had a full week to prepare for Gonzaga, and hasn’t played a quality opponent since suffering its only loss of the season in overtime to the Kansas Jayhawks at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on Black Friday. Meanwhile, the Zags had to eke out a victory at home against the Washington Huskies, thanks in large part to the heroics of Rui Hachimura. Gonzaga’s defense will face a much sterner test than it did on Wednesday night from its in-state rival, and will need to be much better in order to maintain an undefeated season and stay at the top of the polls.
Tennessee Volunteers, 6-1, KenPom #10
Barnes returned a veteran team that won a share of the SEC regular season crown in 2017-18. They are led by the duo of junior Grant Williams and senior Admiral Schofield. Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, is having another special season and could very well win that award for a second year in a row along with some national hardware. He’s averaging 20.4ppg, 8.9rpg, and 4.3apg, and ranks 5th in KenPom’s Player of the Year Standings. Schofield’s not doing too bad for himself, either, averaging 16.1ppg, 6rpg, and 3.4apg.
The Volunteers lean heavily on their starting lineup made up entirely of upperclassmen. Much like the Zags (at the moment), they essentially operate with a 7-man rotation. Despite fielding such an experienced squad, Barnes was critical of his team’s emotional maturity in the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Jayhawks two weeks ago. Both Barnes and Williams were in agreement that the Vols executed poorly and didn’t “look like a veteran team” that night, despite nearly beating the #2 team in the country. A matchup with another top ranked team in Gonzaga presents an opportunity for Tennessee to make up for its squandered opportunity, and validate its Final Four ambitions.
Tennessee is an excellent team on both sides of the ball, ranking 12th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings and 15th in offensive efficiency. The Vols don’t shoot the deep ball too often, and only convert the ones they do attempt at a mediocre rate, but they move the ball really well and will make a defense work. They have four players who average double-figures in scoring, so the Zags don’t have the luxury of keying in on Williams and Schofield. Of course, the Zags have a lot of talent as well and also have four players averaging double figures. Gonzaga is second in the country in points per game (96.4) and operates the most efficient offense per KenPom, but will need its defense to rise to that level to keep the Vols at bay.
Lamonte Turner’s health
The redshirt junior guard is Tennessee’s dynamic threat off the bench, but he’s been hampered by a shoulder injury and missed their last game against Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Turner missed the first three games of the season due to the shoulder, but Barnes suggested last week that Turner’s issue with it now is more psychological than physical. The Zags have struggled to bottle up dynamic guards this season in the absence of a lockdown perimeter defender, so if Turner’s healthy and ready to play, he could expose that weakness.
Which team will tire first?
Both coaches shorten the rotation against quality opponents, and lean on their starters to play heavy minutes. Hachimura and Josh Perkins both played the entire 40 minutes against the Huskies on Wednesday, while Zach Norvell didn’t get much time to rest either after following up his 39-minute performance against Creighton with another 34 minutes against UW. The Vols should be the fresher team after playing two stress-free games against weaker competition, followed up by a week off, so they should have the advantage in this department. Both squads will wear each either out, however, and the team that is more effective at fighting off the fatigue and playing mistake-free basketball is going to be the team that wins the game.