The machine that is Tennessee basketball returns to Knoxville tonight to continue SEC play. The No. 3 Volunteers (14-1), fresh off a tough road win over the defensive-minded Florida Gators, will welcome the Arkansas Razorbacks to town on Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have started conference play 1-2, dropping close contests to Florida and LSU in recent days. Arkansas began SEC play with a narrow win over Texas A&M. Overall, Arkansas sits at 10-5. They dropped non-conference games to Texas, Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech, while picking up one nice win over Indiana.
Tennessee won one and lost one against the Razorbacks last season.
“When I think of them, I think of them being in attack mode where they’re going to come after you defensively and going to come at you on the offensive end,” Rick Barnes said of Arkansas. “They’re terrific with open court plays. If they turn you over, they do a tremendous job of converting those situations.”
To Barnes’ point, Arkansas ranks 39th in steals, grabbing a little over eight per game so far this year. Anderson’s group likes to play fast, ranking in the top forty in terms of pace, according to KenPom.
One reason for the Razorbacks’ inconsistencies this year is youth, particularly in the backcourt, according to Barnes.
“(Mike Anderson) has guards that when you watch them from what they were, to where they are now throughout the season, they’ve continued to get better. We’ve been young before, and we know what that’s like.”
Mason Jones, a 6-5 sophomore, is the team’s second leading scorer this year at 14 points per game. 6-5 freshman Isaiah Joe is also averaging 14 points per contest. Each of those young guards is playing right at 30 minutes per game.
Arkansas is still powered by potential NBA lottery pick Daniel Gafford, however. The 6-11, 233 pound sophomore is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder by a wide margin. Gafford had a 32 point outing in Arkansas’ last game against LSU.
“I think he’s terrific,” Barnes said on Monday speaking on Gafford. “A year ago at their place, I just loved what he’s about. I love his hands, I love his quick bounce off the floor. He’s really a terrific player. It’s going to be a challenging matchup. Kyle will have to deal with that, John Fulkerson, Derrick, Grant, we all will. When gets the ball, he does a good job in tight spaces. I love his first and second jump. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Gafford scored 15 points against Tennessee in the regular season last year, but scored just eight in 24 minutes against the Vols in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee is hoping for similar results tonight. The Vols are plenty equipped to handle Gafford’s presence down low with Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams.
According to Vegas, Tennessee is a 14 point favorite tonight. The game will be shown on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. eastern.