Tennessee knocked off Florida Atlantic Wednesday night to move to 5-4 on the season. The Vols are now 79th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings (7th in the SEC), bolstered by a pleasantly solid strength of schedule as Butler, George Washington, and Georgia Tech are a combined 24-4.
Adding to those ranks should be Gonzaga, though the preseason Top 10 Bulldogs have been victimized by close losses to Texas A&M, Arizona, and UCLA. But what will be specifically problematic for Tennessee (who should still be without Robert Hubbs) is Gonzaga's post presence: former Kentucky Wildcat Kyle Wiltjer, and 6'11" Lithuanian Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas Sabonis. Wiltjer put 17 points in 26 minutes on Cuonzo Martin's second UT squad off the bench in Lexington, and still put in 18 points in Tennessee's 30-point win over the Wildcats in Knoxville. Wiltjer is getting 20.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this season, Sabonis 15.4 and 10.3.
This game is the annual Battle in Seattle at Key Arena, and tips off at a friendly 11:00 PM ET Saturday night. To preview the action, we traded questions and answers with Peter Woodburn of SB Nation's The Slipper Still Fits, where you can find our answers to their questions as well.
As Tennessee fans have gotten very familiar with the coaching carousel this decade, Mark Few's steadfast commitment to Gonzaga has fascinated me. Do you even get nervous anymore when big jobs come open?
I wish I got nervous, because that is a better feeling to have then thoroughly annoyed. Realistically, Mark Few isn't going to be going anywhere, probably ever, but at least for the near future. He has repeatedly stated how much he loves living in Spokane and how much he loves coaching at Gonzaga. I think it can be hard for people to grasp sometimes because you see coaches changing so often, but Few is a family man. He currently gets paid a healthy sum of money to coach one of the better programs in the nation in a place he loves living in. Why would you ever move?
It doesn't sound fair considering who you've played, but Gonzaga already has as many losses this season as they did all of last year through the Elite Eight. It's no crime losing three games by 11 combined points to Texas A&M, Arizona, and UCLA, but has there been a common thread in those games?
The Texas A&M game was actually the outlier (at the time). In that game, Gonzaga just lost a close contest to a good team. The Arizona and UCLA losses were more emblematic of Gonzaga's struggles this season--specifically, poor guard play. Even though the Zags entered the year with the "best frontcourt in the nation", they also lost three-fifths of their starters, including guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. Josh Perkins and Silas Melson were supposed to slide right in and Gonzaga would keep chugging along, but as is often the times with young guards, there have been some speed bumps.
Poor shot selection, poor outside shooting, and overall poor play from the entire Gonzaga back court (including Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis) have plagued the Zags as of late. You can also throw near losses to UConn and Montana into the mix of games that made the fanbase collectively groan. After having it so good last season, this is a frustrating team that has clear issues that need to be addressed. It starts with better guard play.
Has Gonzaga had any particular issue dealing with teams playing up-tempo the way Tennessee should try to go?
Previous Gonzaga offenses loved to run the ball up and down the court, and it was usually the way they could best larger teams. This season, that hasn't been the case as much. Gonzaga is well equipped to run with the best of them. Kyle Wiltjer can hit a trailing three better than any big man in the nation and Domantas Sabonis is remarkably agile at getting down the floor quick. Where the Zags struggle is again with their guards. Perkins (especially) is prone to some real bonehead turnovers that are painful to witness time and time again. Turnovers for the entire team have been a problem this year, and often times they aren't turnovers that stem from aggressive defense. If Tennessee picks up the pace, it's almost a guarantee that the Zags will huck a few errant passes into the stands trying to create fast breaks that have no business being created.
One of the ways Tennessee may try to compensate for their size deficiencies is to shoot a bunch of threes and hope for the best. But the Bulldogs are a top five team in defending the three point line, holding the opposition to 23.4% from the arc. Has this been a particular point of emphasis for this team or is there anything special they do to limit teams from three?
Out of all the offensive issues the Zags have had, their defense has reigned supreme. Their success at three point defense is actually interesting, because for the better part of the past decade, perimeter defense had been absolutely abysmal year in and year out. Something changed. Somehow Mark Few got the message, or somehow the players finally started to listen. Whatever it is, who cares. Texas A&M hit 50 percent from beyond the arc, and after that the next best team is Arizona at 5-for-15. The Zags are good at picking up on ball screens and play aggressive, especially when they switch to zone. If Tennessee wants to open it up from long range, they will need to constantly make the extra pass, because without fail, the first two options will have a hand in the face.
Tennessee has scheduled Butler and Gonzaga this year, two of the most helpful teams in RPI in hopes of making some kind of tournament appearance. What's the ceiling for this Gonzaga team?
A month ago I would've said the ceiling is the Final Four. Now I can say the ceiling is the NCAA Tournament first round. But, at the same time, maybe the ceiling is still the Final Four. There are some very good players on this team who are struggling very visibly. Sabonis and Wiltjer are making us all forget that Przemek Karnowski hasn't even played in the last four games (and will be out for who knows how long). The talent on this squad is there. The execution isn't, and has a long way to go. The Zags have plenty of time to work out some of their kinks, but they also have a lot of kinks to work out. Virtually by playing in the WCC, the Zags should make the NCAA Tournament. Depending on the matchup, perhaps a first round win. I doubt it goes much farther than that, however.