It’s Thanksgiving week, so that means you’re about to get your first real taste of the college basketball season. Preseason tournaments are about to be in full swing and the fifth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers are in one of the most visible of the season.
The Vols will kickoff the Preseason NIT Tournament on Wednesday afternoon, taking on the Louisville Cardinals in Brooklyn, New York. The Cardinals are entering into a new era under new head coach Chris Mack, who opted to leave his consistently successful Xavier program to lead Louisville out of the Rick Pitino era.
His team sits undefeated at 3-0, earning somewhat uncomfortable wins over Vermont (by 8) and Nicholls (by 13). Tennessee will easily be their biggest test of this young season.
“Chris is a terrific coach,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on Monday. “He’s been around. I look at him as an old school kind of coach. He’s going to adapt and do what he does. He knows what he believes in, but if he’s got certain things he needs to do with his players, he’s going to adapt to it. He’s a really fundamentally sound coach and his team will continue to get better as the season goes on.”
Louisville was able to keep their head above water last season in kind of a toss-away season. Interim head coach David Padgett led the Cardinals to a 22-14 record, but the Louisville administration made a big splash by hiring Chris Mack after the season. His group probably isn’t ready to contend nationally just yet, but this is still a team that can compete at a high level on any given night.
“They’re going to be tough and hard-nosed,” Barnes said. “They can defend. They can switch 1-4. They have a presence inside, they drive the ball well, they execute their offense. Again, quickly, there’s no doubt that this is (Mack’s) team now.”
For the Vols, this is the first of several early season resume-builder games. Barnes isn’t afraid to schedule big and he’s done that again this year. A win against the Cardinals likely means a date with Kansas, assuming the Jayhawks can handle Marquette later Wednesday night.
“The fact is, when the committee goes in and looks at your resume for post-season play, yeah it’s important,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s about rankings or seedings or any of that. The bottomline is every game is important. If you don’t believe it, come March you’ll find out. This kind of competition will get us ready for what you’ll eventually get into.”
First things first, Tennessee has to take care of business on Wednesday afternoon. They’ll have to deal with some size on the interior, playing against 6-10 Steven Enoch. Jordan Nwora, a 6-8 sophomore wing, currently leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 18 and six per game. Nwora is also leading the team in three point attempts so far with 14, connecting on five of those through three games.
Darius Perry runs the show for the Cardinals and has been extremely efficient through three games. The 6-2 sophomore guard is shooting 73 percent for now, including 66 percent from long range.
Louisville will play ten men on Wednesday in their rotation, including Khwan Fore, a former Tennessee grad-transfer commitment.
Tennessee will hope to get their offense back going in this one after a physical defensive struggle last week against Georgia Tech. Grant Williams has jumped right back into form early on this season, averaging 22 points per game. Admiral Schofield has struggled to find his stroke through three games, but is still contributing everywhere else on the floor.
Jordan Bone has been the surprise, handling a ton of minutes and really looking like a different, more aggressive player. Lamonte Turner is expected to make his season debut against Louisville, so it’s going to be interesting to see if Bone can keep that edge about him with the full rotation back in place.
Tennessee is favored by 8.5, according to the Action Network. The game can be seen live on ESPN2 at 5PM eastern on Wednesday, November 21st.