The layup games are officially done for Tennessee this season. The Volunteers return home on Wednesday to face No. 6 Arizona, and then hop right into conference play with a game against No. 10 Alabama on December 29th.
For this week though, Arizona has Tennessee’s full attention. The Wildcats have started the Tommy Lloyd era with a bang, holding an 11-0 record to seemingly instantly move past the Sean Miller days. Unlike a lot of teams at this part of the season, it hasn’t come against a cupcake schedule either.
Arizona holds wins over Michigan and Wichita State, along with a true road win at Illinois. They’re looking to add No. 19 Tennessee to that already impressive list.
“I think Tommy has done a really good job,” Rick Barnes said on Monday. “Certainly inherited some players and he’s added some to the mix himself. The way they’re playing, they’re playing really good basketball.”
KenPom ranks Arizona 7th in the nation currently, while Tennessee checks in at 9th. The Wildcats rank 14th in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency. Arizona is first in the NET rankings, going 3-0 against quadrant one teams.
“Front line is terrific,” Barnes continued. “The blocks they do around there. I’ve really enjoyed watching them. What I’ve watched of them, they play hard. They’re not going to beat themselves. They mix their defenses. They know what they’re looking for on the offensive end. They have about an eight-man rotation that they believe in. And those eight guys, the rotational players, have played well. The guys coming off the bench have played well the last couple games. So they’re at a team that are very confident, and they should be, because of what they’ve done up to this point, there’s no reason for them not to be.”
Arizona has ridiculous length along with some European flair, which likely stems from Lloyd’s Gonzaga days, where he spent the last 20 years. The Wildcats are led by sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin, who is pouring in over 17 points per game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.
6-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis adds 16 points per game, while 7-1, 230 pound center Christian Koloko anchors that defense Barnes spoke so highly of. Koloko blocks 3.5 shots per game, making life difficult for anyone trying to come inside of the paint. Not only will Olivier Nkamhoua and John Fulkerson have trouble inside, but Kennedy Chandler will have to pick his spots when attacking the rim. Hitting some jumpers will be an obvious key for Tennessee in this one.
Barnes will face a system that he’s seen many times before, as Lloyd brings his Gonzaga blueprint to Arizona. Tennessee has faced the Zags a few times, and Barnes played and scrimmaged against Mark Few several times during his time at Texas. That familiarity creates another layer in this matchup.
“Getting to know Tommy, he certainly had a lot to do with the success at Gonzaga, as all assistants help you with what you’re doing,” Barnes said. “He was the coach-in-waiting there, but had this opportunity come along. Do they do some of the same things? They do, obviously. But he’s added his own touch to it, too. They’re doing a little more pressure stuff, I think defensively. Changing some things up on the defensive end more than maybe Gonzaga has done in the past. But there are some similarities to the way both teams play.”
Tennessee and Arizona are set for a 7 p.m. ET tip-off at Thompson-Boling Arena. ESPN2 will have the coverage.