Tennessee's last five season openers: Kennesaw State, UNC Greensboro, Chattanooga, Austin Peay, Chattanooga. You have to go back to 2007-08 when the Vols hosted Temple in the newly-renovated Thompson-Boling Arena to find a season opener like this, and you have to go back to Buzz Peterson's final year when the Vols opened the season in Maui against Stanford to find one away from home.
And I for one love it. It's exciting to see your new team against anyone in a game that counts, but you don't learn a whole lot in those games. But tonight will be educational, and presents an opportunity for a Tennessee team lurking one spot outside the AP Top 25 to play their way onto the national radar and start the year with a big road win.
This is the return match for last year's 51-47 Vol victory in Knoxville back when we were playing our ugliest basketball. And this one certainly belonged in the month of December: Tennessee battled back from down ten at 33-23 early in the second half to outscore the Musketeers 28-14 the rest of the way home despite both teams combining for 4 of 28 from the arc. The Vols held Xavier to 32.7% from the floor and Semaj Christon to 5 points on 1 of 9 shooting.
Then Christon went off, scoring double figures in every game the rest of the year (the Vols joined Butler and Cincinnati as the only teams to hold him in single digits). He finished his freshman campaign averaging 15.2 points per game. Now with double-double machine Travis Taylor having graduated, Christon enters his sophomore year as the clear go-to guy for a team that struggled to a 17-13 regular season last year and were bounced by St. Joseph's in the final seconds of the Atlantic 10 Tournament to end their season.
Xavier beat Gardner-Webb 83-59 on Friday to open their season; Christon was the leading scorer to no surprise with 14. But watch out for Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook, a 6'10" center who had a 13/12.
Both point guards have injury issues. Xavier's Dee Davis is recovering from a concussion and did not play against Gardner-Webb; he's listed as day-to-day. Antonio Barton hasn't played in either of Tennessee's exhibition games but should go tonight as he continues to recover from a knee/ankle tweak. Freshmen abound in their absence: Darius Thompson will certainly see minutes for Tennessee, and Brandon Randolph started and had seven assists for Xavier against Gardner-Webb.
Last year the Vols forced 19 turnovers against Xavier, a record for Cuonzo-led teams. We'll see if this year's squad is equal to the defensive task in shutting down what the Musketeers want to do. That obviously starts with Christon, who will probably be the responsibility of Josh Richardson when he's on the floor. Minutes will be fascinating to watch for the Vols, specifically with Barton, Maymon, and how much Richardson and Robert Hubbs see the floor.
The officiating will be interesting too, with a renewed emphasis on limiting physical play. For example, Xavier shot 40 free throws against Gardner-Webb. Good news: they only made 22 of them. Will Stokes and Maymon take advantage of the new rules and get to the line, or find themselves on the bench in their own foul trouble?
If you care about such things, Xavier is a three point favorite. We'll see what the Vols have tonight at 9:00 PM ET on Fox Sports 1. In the meantime check out SB Nation's Xavier blog Banners on the Parkway, with full coverage of everything Xavier including these two particularly interesting takeaways from their Gardner-Webb recap:
Matt (Stainbrook) was also very demonstrative throughout the game. Whether good, bad, or indifferent, it's clear the big man has an opinion on things. His interactions with Coach Mack were heated, but never seemed disrepectful. It will be interesting to see how he handles the big moments.
Not since the last soccer game I watched have I seen someone run so much. (Brandon) Randolph doesn't walk anywhere, and he doesn't hesitate with the ball. That will lead to some mistakes, yes, but it's surely fun to watch when going well.