After a brief non-conference slate, Tennessee is set to dive into conference play. Interestingly enough, it may be their toughest conference game of the year. Cuonzo Martin’s Missouri Tigers are on deck for the Volunteers, setting up a matchup of top 15 teams.
Tennessee will hit the road to Columbia, facing a hot team on a six-game winning streak. The Tigers have climbed all the way to No. 12 in the AP Poll after starting the season unranked. They’ve been plenty impressive to this point, toppling No. 6 Illinois and No. 21 Oregon so far in the young season.
Things can change in a hurry, but right now, these are the clear-cut best teams in the SEC right now.
“They’re really good defensively,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said on Monday of Missouri. “They’re a heavy gap team that does a great job of swarming in and wanting to break the ball loose and get out in transition. They’re playing at a much faster pace than they have probably since we’ve gone up against them with Cuonzo being there with them. So they’re different, but I think they’re a very well-coached team on both sides, I think they both know exactly how they want to play and who they want to play through. They know who they are, and they play to that.”
Missouri is averaging 75 points while surrendering 65 points per game. They rank 54th in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom’s rankings. Tennessee has the third ranked defense according to that metric, for reference, although the sample size remains small for both teams.
The Tigers are once again led by Xavier Pinson, who is scoring north of 14 points per game. Guards Mark Smith and Dru Smith are close behind, each averaging 13 points per game. It’s a loaded, veteran backcourt that will certainly test Tennessee. However, as we’ve seen, the Volunteers can likely matchup with anyone in the country, thanks to the defensive ability of these elite freshmen guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. The reigning SEC defensive player of the year in Yves Pons certainly helps as well.
Though both Tennessee and Missouri are 6-0, the Vols are still working to find themselves with so many new pieces. As if this season wasn’t challenging enough, Tennessee started the season two weeks later that most. Are they ready for conference play just a few weeks later?
“Whether we are or aren’t, we better be ready because we’re getting ready to play games that anybody on our schedule any given night could beat us, and we know that,” Barnes said. “So we better understand the importance of getting better right now.”
Barnes has stuck with his veteran starting five through six games, bringing those stud freshmen off the bench quickly. That’s the formula he’s going to stick with for the time being, while everyone continues to settle in.
With the level of competition getting set to ramp up, Barnes is just looking for one thing.
“Consistency — that’s with everyone. I don’t think we’ve had one guy that’s been absolutely consistent,” Barnes said. “I would say our most consistent player has been Josiah. Overall, him and Santi are two guys who have been fairly consistent, but the other guys haven’t been as consistent as I know they have to be and what I think they will become.”
Finding that consistency will now get a lot tougher with the cupcake games finished for the year. The real fun now begins — it’s time to see what this group is really made of.
Tennessee and Missouri will tip-off on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET.