Following wins over Marquette and Louisville, No. 2 Kansas and No. 5 Tennessee are set to battle it out in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. For Rick Barnes and Bill Self, it’s probably going to feel like an old-fashioned Big 12 matchup.
Self managed to go 15-6 against Barnes during his time at Texas, but he acknowledges that this Tennessee team might have something that his team doesn’t.
“We need this game,” Self said after beating Marquette. “I think we need this game more than Tennessee needs this game, to be quite candid, because we’re young and we’re not as tough as we need to be. We better be pretty tough on Friday. The way they play — they can certainly make us look really bad. I think it’s a great game for our guys to see where we’re at, without question.”
Self described the Vols as a team with a superstar in Grant Williams, but also as a team with plenty of “interchangeable parts.”
Kansas sits at 4-0, already having passed their first test against tenth-ranked Michigan State. The Jayhawks won that one by five on opening night. Tennessee and Kansas actually do have a common opponent already in Louisiana. The Vols beat the Ragin’ Cajuns by 22, while the Jayhawks struggled for much of the night before pulling away late for a 13 point win.
The Jayhawks are powered by a “big three” of Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike, each of whom are averaging 15+ points per contest so far this year.
Vick has been the standout so far, pacing Kansas with 20.8 points per game. He’s shooting a ridiculous 62 percent from three point range, connecting on 18 of 29 shots from long range. Tennessee’s perimeter defense on the 6-5 senior guard will be a major key on Friday night.
Lawson (6-9) and Azubuike (7-1) are going to provide Kansas with a size advantage over the 6-7 Grant Williams and the 6-11 Kyle Alexander. Azubuike didn’t get a chance to truly impact the game against Marquette after getting into foul trouble. But Lawson picked up the slack, scoring 26 points and adding 12 rebounds to the cause.
Tennessee is going to need two more A+ efforts out of Williams and Schofield to keep pace, which is exactly what they got against Louisville. What they didn’t get was offensive contributions from Jordan Bowden and Kyle Alexander. Luckily, John Fulkerson and Lamonte Turner stepped up.
Another key here will be the play of Jordan Bone, who appears to have really taken a big step forward so far this year. Tennessee is on a different level when they have Bone playing aggressively and getting to the rim. He’s got to stay in control, but he holds the key to taking this team to the next tier. He’ll have a shot to do that on Friday night.
For what it’s worth, Kansas has opened as a three point favorite out in Vegas. The total has been set at 150.
Tip-off is set for Friday night at 9 PM eastern on ESPN2.