Is Tennessee getting better? Or are Vanderbilt and Ole Miss just... really bad? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since Tuesday night. Hopefully for the Volunteers, both can be true.
Tennessee rebounded from one of their worst games of the season at Georgia last week, coming back with two straight blowouts. The offense looked much better and much more aggressive. Jordan Bowden toned down his shooting and really began attacking the rim. John Fulkerson scored a career high 18 points on Tuesday night. Yves Pons’ defense and shot blocking really seemed to spark some transition opportunities for Tennessee.
Those positive developments are rewarded with a trip to No. 3 Kansas on Saturday. The Jayhawks have turned into a somewhat common non-conference opponent for the Volunteers. This will be the second season in a row that the two sides have faced each other, with Kansas getting the best of Tennessee last season in OT in the preseason NIT tournament.
Where Kansas Stands
Kansas and Bill Self just keep chugging along, seemingly always somewhere inside of the top five this time of year. The Jayhawks sit at 15-3 on the year with their only losses coming to Duke, Villanova and Baylor.
They enter this game following an ugly brawl at the end of their blowout victory over rival Kansas State. The fight will cost Kansas two players in this game and beyond as the Big 12 announced suspensions for Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack. Neither player was a starter for Bill Self, but McCormack is a key player off of the bench, averaging 16 minutes per game.
Kansas is powered by Devon Dotson, a 6-2 sophomore guard averaging north of 18 points per game. Dotson is more than just a scorer, too. He’s second on the team in assists, and leads Kansas with 2.3 steals per game.
Big man Udoka Azubuike is back as well, averaging a near double double so far this season. Tennessee got the 7-0, 270 pound center in foul trouble last season, which went a long way towards keeping things competitive. Without a big time paint presence this year, Yves Pons and John Fulkerson are going to really have to give great efforts on the boards and defensively. Maybe this is a spot where Uros Plavsic’s 7-1 frame comes into play off the bench for Tennessee.
On the other end of the floor, Azubuike is producing 2.4 blocks per game. Considering his size and shot-blocking ability, it’s fairly unlikely the Tennessee offense will be running through Fulkerson as it did against Ole Miss.
What Tennessee must do to win
This is a spot where Kansas is lacking depth — use that. De Sousa and McCormack are the primary bigs that would back up Azubuike. If Tennessee can get him in foul trouble once again, they might just have at least a path to the upset. We’ve see Tennessee attack the rim in their last two games. Even though that might be tough to do with Azubuike on the floor, you’ve got to go at him.
Kansas is 76th in rebounds, 71st in points scored and 15th in points allowed. It’s a team without a clear weakness on paper, facing a Tennessee team that is very much still trying to adjust to an ever-changing roster.
Not to oversimplify things, but Tennessee is going to have to hit shots. Yves Pons also can’t be passive. If he’s open, he needs to fire. Same goes for Josiah James, who we’ve seen amp up the aggression offensively lately.
KenPoms ranks Kansas as its No. 1 team, citing the No. 1 defense and No. 9 offense in the country. This isn’t a game that Tennessee is going to be able to hang around in if the shots aren’t falling.
Tennessee and Kansas will tip off as a part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN.