It's been thirty years since Tennessee and Duke last played. When you see Kentucky twice a year, you really don't get starstruck by the other marquee programs in college basketball. What's more, the Vols have actually played North Carolina three times in the last ten years, beat #1 Kansas two years ago, and fell to Michigan State by a point in the 2010 Elite Eight. But Duke remains an elusive and enticing foe - easy to hate, hard to get your hands on.
It was Bruce Pearl who brought Tennessee Basketball to the national conversation, which no doubt helped put the Vols in Maui. But now it will be Cuonzo Martin's brand new team that faces the #6 Blue Devils. Duke is currently an 11 point favorite, a number some in Big Orange Country might be comfortable with in defeat with this team. But Tennessee as a program is used to going toe to toe with the biggest of boys - will any of that confidence and presence carry over to this team?
Duke is 4-0 after a near miss against Belmont (sounds familiar) in the opener, an easy win over Presbyterian, a five point triumph over Michigan State, and an 82-69 win over Davidson. The Vols have easy wins over UNC-Greensboro and Louisiana-Monroe, though we're obviously unsure what exactly we've learned about this team so far. Early indications point to Trae Golden as the leader (23.0 ppg, 60% from the field, 4/1 assist/turnover ratio). The Vols are also shooting 49.1% from three, which is obviously helpful, but it's going to take a lot more of that to make us believe it's truly a strength of a team we've seen struggle from three for several years. We know this team will emphasize defense and will play hard. How much will that be worth against good teams? We're about to find out.
If you're super optimistic, remember how important it is to win on Monday or Tuesday in this tournament. A pair of losses to Duke and Michigan/Memphis will almost certainly pit the Vols against Chaminade on Wednesday; while UT could win that game, they would miss out on an opportunity to help their RPI and SOS by playing another top tier team from the other side of the bracket (Georgetown, UCLA, Kansas). If Tennessee had to pick one non-conference upset to get this season, it needs to be today or tomorrow.
After the jump, we'll take a closer look at the Blue Devils.
Tennessee may be outshooting Duke from three, but the Blue Devils still have a ton of players who can stroke it. It starts with Seth Curry, whose name should sound familiar in this particular category. The junior guard is hitting an absurd 58.8% of his threes so far and leads the team with 15.8 points per game. Continuing the trend of familiar last names, true freshman Austin Rivers is averaging 13.3 per game. Andre Dawkins added 26 against Michigan State on 6 of 10 from three; all three players are shooting better than 42% from the arc.
Inside, this is the first time we'll see the Vols at a huge disadvantage. 6'11" Mason Plumlee is averaging a double-double at 12.3 points and 10.0 rebounds; his 6'10" bro Miles averages 7.0 and 6.3. And 6'11" Ryan Kelly is averaging 12.8 points. This team, as you'd expect, has NBA size. Tennessee has 6'7" Jeronne Maymon, who's been a force inside thus far. They have 6'9" Kenny Hall, who has really struggled in the first two games. And then there's 6'8" Dwight Miller and/or 6'9" Yemi Makanjuola, who are both incredibly untested.
Even in a best case scenario where Maymon still finds a way to rebound and the Vols play their very best interior defense, how does this Tennessee team score inside on this Duke team?
This could lead to an abundance of threes yet again, which will be great if Tennessee's hot streak followed them to Maui...but if not, this thing could get out of hand in a hurry.
If the Vols get hammered, we shouldn't jump to conclusions; Duke is ranked sixth for a reason. If you discount last year's Michigan game due to the unique circumstances surrounding Pearl, this program isn't accustomed to getting blown out, but most of the key players involved also weren't in the wars of years past with Memphis, Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio State. Here's a place where Cameron Tatum can make a difference and be a calming influence, because he's really the only guy that's played in a game like this on a regular basis. We saw greatness from Skylar McBee and Renaldo Woolridge against Kansas two years ago, but lightning and bottles and what not, I'd settle for what we've seen from McBee so far this year and a physical presence in the post from Woolridge.
Most of all, if the Vols play hard and compete, it'll be a good start. Tennessee and Cuonzo Martin are still getting to know each other; Duke in Maui isn't the best place for a third date. But this week is still a huge opportunity for this basketball team...we'll find out what we've got tonight at 5:30 PM ET.