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Tennessee Volunteers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs: What To Watch For

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Will Tennessee notch their biggest win of the Rick Barnes era?

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Florida
Jordan Bone needs to bring his best game on Sunday
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

With all of the news currently surrounding the football program’s search for an offensive coordinator, it can be easy to forget that the Vols play the Gonzaga Bulldogs this Sunday.

For those who don’t know, Gonzaga is the number one team in the country. It’s a pretty big deal.

The Vols are no stranger to playing good teams. They took Kansas - the number two team in the country - to the wire in overtime during Thanksgiving weekend. If it weren’t for some late-game mistakes, Tennessee would have won the game.

So how will they shake out against the Zags?

1. Continue to develop the inside presence

One of Tennessee’s issues during the Kansas matchup was the fact that they settled for too many three-point shots. This was clearly stated by head coach Rick Barnes after the game.

“The fact we took 27 threes really bothered me, a lot. Because we didn’t do what we asked them to do.” - Rick Barnes, via knoxnews.com

Tennessee’s front court is physical and strong, there is no doubt about that. Obviously, Grant Williams is their best player, but when Kyle Alexander gets going, it’s almost impossible to beat this team.

Alexander has played tremendously so far this season and looks like a NBA draft pick with each passing week.

But it’s not just Tennessee’ bigs that need to come through. Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden will both need to find ways to create shooting opportunities using their speed and athleticism. Gonzaga is very good at limiting opponents’ assists, so expect the Vols to use a lot of isolation plays to free up their best players.

2. Free throw shooting

It’s easy to see that the Vols are struggling from the line this year. They finished 40th in the country last season, shooting close to 76%, but they are currently 183rd with a 69% hit rate.

The formula for this is simple: hit your damn free throws.

3. Rested and ready

Tennessee gets an entire week off before they play the Bulldogs and Admiral Schofield mentioned earlier in the week how that will be an advantage for the Vols.

Gonzaga is also very beat up. They are missing one of their best players in Killian Tillie, who suffered a stress fracture in his ankle about a month ago. Geno Crandall, a rotational player, recently broke his hand and is expected to miss the game as well.

This means the Bulldogs will likely employ a seven-man rotation on Sunday. They just played the Washington Huskies on Wednesday night, so it will be interesting to see how they perform against a well-rested, highly-focused Tennessee squad.

It took a last-second shot from Rui Hachimura Jr. to get the win. The Huskies also held the Zags to just 81 points. While that is still a lot of points, Gonzaga averaged 94.8 points per game heading into the matchup.

You better bet Tennessee will be reviewing that tape on Thursday.

4. How will they contain the Zags on offense?

I don’t really know if you can actually contain Gonzaga’s offense. Even with a limited stockpile, Mark Few still finds ways to win at the highest level.

Yves Pons may be the key here. He has stepped it up defensively. His size and athleticism should match up well with Hachimura Jr and Brandon Clarke. Pons will need to lock down the high post against Hachimura Jr, where he is lethal.

Regardless, it will take an entire team effort to keep the Zags from scoring more points than the Vols. They did struggle with Washington’s zone defense, so that should bode well for the Vols considering how much zone they like to play.

5. Rick Barnes vs Mark Few

Two of the best in the game will face off in a high-stakes matchup. Tennessee needs this win to prove they belong in the top ten and Gonzaga needs to win so they don’t have to worry about losing the top ranking.

In-game adjustments will be absolutely key on both ends and it will be fun to watch the battle between these two head coaches.