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Tennessee vs. Memphis: What to watch for, key players

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The Tigers come to Thompson-Boling with revenge on their minds.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Memphis
Jordan Bowden will lead the Vols into battle on Saturday.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Who said Saturdays in Knoxville aren’t exciting without football?

The No. 19 Tennessee Volunteers (7-1) take on the No. 13 Memphis Tigers (8-1) in a rematch that both sides have been dwelling on for almost a year. Last year’s matchup was an intense, tough fight that bled over into the postgame press conferences and created quite a bit of tension between these two programs.

But the past is the past. It’s time to look forward to this week’s matchup.

Overview

KenPom currently has the Tigers as the 34th team in the nation. Their only loss on the season came to Oregon, who is currently the 14th-best team in the nation, according to KenPom.

Outside of Oregon, the Tigers haven’t had much of a challenge in terms of competition. So far, their best win of the season appears to be a 83-78 win over North Carolina State. According to KenPom, the Wolfpack is currently ranked as the 38th-best team in the nation.

Memphis will be without James Wiseman, who is currently ineligible until January due to NCAA violations. They’ll also be without four-star recruit Lester Quinones, who averaged over ten points per game before breaking his hand a couple of weeks ago.

The Tigers currently field the 23rd-ranked scoring offense (82.1 points per game) and the 108th-ranked scoring defense (64.8 ppg). The offense is anchored by Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries, two players that average 13.9 points and 12 points per game, respectively.

But it’s the defense that has shined for the Tigers, especially in the last couple of games.

The team is tied for fourth in the country with 6.8 blocks per game and allows a 40.2% conversion rate when it comes to two-point shots, which is the 10th-best mark in the NCAA. They’re pretty effective at guarding the perimeter as well, and at the end of the day, they hold the 11th-best mark when it comes to overall field goal percentage on defense (36.2%).

The Vols will need to control Achiuwa and the boards on Saturday if they want to pull this one out.

What To Watch For

  • Contain Precious: Achiuwa was held to a season-low five points on 2-of-5 shooting in the loss to Oregon. He is the Tigers’ leading scorer and is the best defender on the team. The Vols will need to neutralize him if they want a shot at winning on Saturday.
  • Control the boards: The Vols own a (+9) rebound margin on the year, which is good for the 21st in the country. The Tigers own a (+4) margin. Tennessee will need to continue to control boards in order to limit a struggling Memphis offense.
  • The Tigers’ offense: Speaking of which, the Memphis offense has been struggling lately. Their last two matchups featured point totals of 71 and 65, and when you add in the opponents that were Bradley and UAB - it makes you scratch your head even more. Tennessee owns the 16th-most efficient defense in the country, so the Tigers’ offense will need to figure things out before Saturday.
  • Keep Memphis away from the charity stripe: The Tigers average around 27 free throws a game and they make around 19 of them. Those numbers are good for the 19th-most attempts and the 15th-most points so far on the season. The 19 points per game accounts for almost a quarter of Memphis’ points on the season.

Impact Players

  • Precious Achiuwa: Without Wiseman, Achiuwa steps into the role of “best player on the team”. The Vols will need to limit him as much as possible.
  • D.J. Jeffries: The team’s second-leading scorer can kill you from anywhere on the court and is a presence on the inside, as well.
  • Alex Lomax: The talented sophomore is budding into one of the best players - and leaders - on the team.

Game Outlook

The Tigers are really, really beat up heading into this game and the fact that it will be played in front of a raucous Volunteer crowd won’t make things any easier.

Tennessee’s lack of an inside presence is a bit concerning. If Memphis’ athleticism starts to permeate throughout the game, then Tennessee will have to make outside shots in order to keep up with the Tigers. As we all know, that’s a dangerous game to play in college basketball.

But long as Tennessee plays its game - which is efficient offense and smart defense - then everything should be fine.