The Tennessee men’s basketball team will take on the #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs this coming Sunday in the Air Force Reserve Jerry Colangelo Classic as they look to continue their red hot start to the 2018-19 season. The Vols come into the game with a record of 6-1 while Gonzaga is sporting a perfect 9-0 record thus far.
The Volunteers only loss to date came against the #2 Kansas Jayhawks in the finale of the NIT Season Tip-Off by a score of 87-81 in overtime. Even though Coach Barnes and the Vols came up a little short, this game proved that Tennessee basketball is “for real.” Another solid performance and hopefully a win against the nation’s top ranked team will really hammer that belief home.
Fortunately for the Vols, this game will be played in Phoenix, Arizona, at a neutral location rather than the McCarthy Athletic Center denying the Zags the home court atmosphere. The Vols need to take advantage of this and come out with high energy and take away a big win. The game against Kansas proved this team is a real threat but to really be taken seriously Tennessee needs to win one of these early games against a higher ranked team such as Gonzaga. Another favorable circumstance of this matchup for the Vols is that this is their only game of the week, allowing them to focus and plan for just one opponent while also getting plenty of rest.
Coach Barnes has stressed all week to both the media and his players how important it is for the Vols to improve their defense going into the matchup with the Zags. Through nine games, Gonzaga has the nation’s second best scoring offense along with the top ranked field goal percentage in the country. In short, Gonzaga can score.
They are led by Japanese phenom Rui Hachimura. The 6’8” junior has been a handful for opposing defenses early in the season averaging 22 points and 6 rebounds per game. Slowing Hachimura down early will be important for the Vols defensively. Defense has been the lone weak spot this season for junior forward Grant Williams. He will need to change that on Sunday as I expect the Zags leading scorer to see a heavy dose of Williams along with a lot of attention from senior Kyle Alexander.
Another factor that’s notable going into this game is the status of reigning SEC co-sixth man of the year, Lamonte Turner. After missing the first three games of the season, Turner has struggled in his return. The sharpshooter saw his lengthy streak of games making at least one 3-pointer come to an end against Eastern Kentucky two games ago and was forced to sit out Tennessee’s last game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi with a nagging shoulder injury. With his status in question, listed as day-to-day, the Vols will need someone else to step up.
It will be interesting to see if Williams and Admiral Schofield can lead the Vols to the upset. With Tennessee football’s offensive coordinator search nearing two weeks and Vol Nation struggling to understand why, the hoops team knocking off the nation’s top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs would bring us some positive news that I think everyone in Knoxville would appreciate right now.