Hello there! You’ve been following Tennessee football all year and are only now turning your attention to Tennessee basketball? Good news: we’re better than you thought!
An 8-5 start including near misses with #5 Gonzaga, #13 Wisconsin, #14 North Carolina, and #15 Oregon has the Vols ranked 63rd in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings after finishing 90th and 103rd the last two years. The Vols beat Georgia Tech by 23 (who just beat North Carolina by 12) and have won back-to-back road games at ETSU and Texas A&M, building a 20-point lead with four minutes to play in College Station. The Aggies are the only team to beat #21 Virginia Tech, who just beat Duke by 14.
The Vols have been taking advantage at the free throw line all year, shooting 75.8% at the stripe, 30th nationally. But defense is becoming more and more a story with this team: Tennessee frustrated Texas A&M into shooting less than 35% from the floor, and their relentlessness shows up in a number of different ways. Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams are helping offset the Vols’ challenges in stature with great shot-blocking: Williams averages 2.1 per game and had 10 in the Vols’ two road wins, while Alexander has made several key blocks this year and averages 1.1 in 14.6 minutes. Tennessee’s 69 total blocks this year are 44th nationally. The Vols are now a Top 100 team in two-point field goal percentage allowed.
But if we’re talking shot-blocking, that means we’re talking Moses Kingsley. The preseason SEC player of the year averages three per game while adding 11.4 points and 8.7 rebounds for Arkansas. Tennessee did not enjoy playing this team last year: the Vols never threatened in an 18-point loss in Fayetteville, and the Hogs pulled away in the second half in Knoxville to win by 10.
This Arkansas team hasn’t been quite as fast as some of their predecessors, but they still play at essentially the same tempo as Tennessee so there’s no natural advantage there. Along with Kingsley, guards Dusty Hannahs and Anton Beard are back. This team shoots an even better percentage at the free throw line (a very impressive 78.1%, 10th nationally) and allows opponents to barely crack 40% from the field, 75th nationally at 40.4%. Many of the things Tennessee does well, Arkansas does better. Their only losses have come to Minnesota and Florida; with the latter I think they simply got beat by a better team. But the Hogs, like Texas A&M, look to be a bubble team. This doesn’t look like an easy night for the Vols, but neither did the Aggies.
A slightly earlier start tonight at 6:30 PM ET on the SEC Network. And if you’re in town you can get in free with a donation of two non-perishable food items. This team has been all kinds of fun to watch; we’ll see what they’ve got against another good team tonight.