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Tennessee-Colorado Preview: Vols favored in challenging season opener

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NCAA Basketball: Colorado at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers are going to play a game of basketball tonight, finally. After seeing their first four games canceled following a COVID battle within the program — and then a new game canned against Tennessee-Martin — Tennessee is finally ready to roll tonight. And they found a quality opponent to kick things off.

Colorado went through a COVID pause of its own, forced to cancel games against Arizona and Washington State. So it just so happened to work out that both the Volunteers and Buffaloes needed another non-conference game to play this week.

Colorado has already played two games this season, picking up wins over South Dakota and Kansas State. That’s definitely an advantage for the Buffaloes, who were impressive in the ‘Little Apple Classic’ multi-team event.

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes admitted on Monday that his team is behind, following several changes to the schedule so far this season.

“I think we’re behind, because like I said earlier, we had a chance to go up and down the floor three times in two weeks leading into tomorrow,” Barnes told the media on Monday. “I do think the older guys can handle it, more so than the younger guys. Our younger guys, the stops and starts have definitely affected them more in terms of their recall and being able to understand what we’re doing.”

Tennessee’s senior leadership — Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and E.J. Anosike — will immediately be put to the test. The good news for the Volunteers is that guys like Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi aren’t starting from ground zero as sophomores. They took their lumps last season, which will be beneficial here with very little recent practice. The wildcard, of course, is how five-star freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer fire off.

“We didn’t do anything Saturday in preparation for Colorado, because we weren’t sure yet that the game was actually going to go,” Barnes said. “While we were working on that game, we were in contact with two or three other schools that we possibly would have to get on the road and go play on a Wednesday, which at this point in time we were prepared to do whatever we had to do to get our season going. Tomorrow will be the first time that we have everybody sitting on the same bench together.

“It is what it is. We’re just glad to be playing, and I think our guys will tell you that they’re excited.”

Colorado was a likely NCAA Tournament team a year ago, and returns the best player from that team. Senior point guard McKinley Wright is back after going through the NBA Draft process this offseason, and he’s wasting no time putting up big numbers. Wright has scored 20 and 24 points in two attempts so far this season, adding five assists per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

Wright will be a handful for any team this season, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the Volunteers handle him tonight. Vescovi is the natural matchup here, but Barnes has continually praised Springer and Johnson on the defensive side. Their length could make things tough on the 6-foot point guard, so that’s something to monitor as the night goes on.

The Buffaloes are looking to replace key forward Tyler Bey this season, who added 14 points and nine rebounds per game last year. Colorado actually only has one player above 6-8 on their roster. Senior transfer Jeriah Horne, 6-7, 220 pounds, has made a quick impact, averaging ten points in his first two games with the Buffs.

Read more about Colorado over at RalphieReport.com.

It’s tough to get a solid gauge on any team right now, especially with the total unknown that Tennessee is. KenPom is your best bet, which ranks Colorado 51st and Tennessee 21st. Another indicator is Vegas, which likes the Volunteers to win a close one tonight. Tennessee is a narrow 5.5 point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

Tennessee and Colorado will tip-off tonight at 6 p.m. ET in Knoxville. It will not be on TV, but it’s available to stream on SEC Network+ (Check the ESPN App or espn.com/watch).