The Tennessee men’s basketball team returns to action tonight, looking to move to 2-0 with a win over Murray State. The Racers sent star point guard Ja Morant to the NBA last season and are now looking to reload to make another run at the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee is just one game in to its new era, moving on from four of five starters from last season’s team. Tuesday night’s matchup will be one between two teams that are trying to find a new way to win.
The Racers got off to a good start last week, winning by 20 over Southern University. Tennessee handled UNC-Asheville with relative ease, pulling away in the second half.
“They return some experienced players that played for an NCAA Tournament team a year ago and are a year older,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of Murray State on Monday. “Roles will change from year to year, I don’t care who you bring back, but they’re a really solid defensive team. I think they very much play the way that we like to play, inside-out. They have a really good post presence and are really solid defensively, and they’ve got experienced guys that have played in some big games.”
Murray State, powered by Ja Morant, knocked off No. 5 seed Marquette in the round of 64 in last season’s NCAA Tournament. The Racers were then sent home by Florida State two days later.
Taking over for Morant is redshirt sophomore Tevin Brown, who scored nearly 12 points per game last season for the Racers. The 6-5 guard scored 17 points in their opening night win over Southern. That’s where the offense will begin tonight for Murray State.
“They’ve added to that two terrific shooters from the perimeter that you’ve got to really know where they are,” Barnes said. “They’re an inside team, with a really good post presence. They play mostly man, but will mix in some different defenses to try and keep you off balance. I just think they’re a well-coached team.”
Sophomore K.J. Williams was also impressive against Southern, pouring in 15 points in just 23 minutes. The 6-10 post player will be a challenge for Tennessee, which is undersized in the frontcourt this season — pending another Uros Plavsic appeal.
This will be the first meeting between Tennessee and Murray State since 2006. Tennessee leads the all-time series against the Racers 3-0.
For the Volunteers, this is an opportunity against a good team to build some more chemistry with this new group. Tennessee struggled with turnovers in the first half against UNC-Asheville, so you know Rick Barnes is looking to clean that up tonight.
It’s another chance for five-star freshman guard Josiah James to settle in, who is battling back from injury. He missed chunks of training camp, so these games are crucial for him to simply get his legs underneath him. James scored just two points in his debut, but his ability to rebound and pass really stood out.
It’s also another opportunity for Yves Pons to grow into his new post role, which he excelled in last week. Pons is giving Tennessee minutes closer to the rim this season, using his elite athletic ability to try and make up for the Vols’ lack of size. He’ll have a test tonight against the 6-10 Williams, so that will be interesting to see how he holds up.
Tennessee and Murray State will tip-off at 9 p.m. ET live on SEC Network. The Volunteers are 12.5 point favorites in the matchup.