Your nationally 6th-ranked Tennessee Vols head to Arizona to play the No. 9th-ranked Wildcats this Saturday. This game caps off the home-and-home series that saw the Vols pull out a 77-73 win in the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena in the initial meeting.
Tennessee got off to a fast start in last season’s affair and still managed to grab the victory from the jaws of defeat even after it gave up 50 second-half points to the Wildcats. There was a significant variance in the numbers of fouls called on each team — just go ask the comments’ section on Arizona’s Q&A with us how they feel about that.
But there’s no doubt early foul trouble hampered the Arizona frontcourt. What’s wild: after losing Christian Koloko to the NBA, the Wildcats are actually more lethal in the post than they were last season. All in all, they lost three players to the draft and still bring the country’s No. 1 offense to the table.
In fact, per Ken Pomeroy — this matchup has the country’s best offense against the country’s best defense. So I reached out to Brian Pederson of SB Nation’s AZ Desert Swarm to get an idea of how this Arizona team has managed to get better despite losing a trio of NBA players from last year’s team, how he envisions the game playing out Saturday and which of the two elite units — AZ’s offense or UT’s defense — will blink first.
1.) Given the way last season’s game played out — the slow Arizona start, the key players in foul trouble, the second-half rally — what was the temperature of the ‘Zona fanbase after the loss?
That was Tommy Lloyd’s first loss at Arizona, and in his short tenure to that point he’d already gotten enough fans to dream of a Final Four. By the end of the 16-2 start they were unsure if he was the right fit for the program. You know, the usual.
This has always been a very kneejerk, recency bias type of fanbase, so it was certainly hard for many to look past a tough loss in an even tougher environment. That was the case after the other two regular-season losses, and then losing to a woefully underseeded Houston team in the Sweet 16 brought out the inevitable ‘just like Sean Miller’ responses. That’ll never change, unfortunately.
2.) Arizona is missing three players from last year’s 33-4 team who are now in the NBA: Rookie of the Year candidate Bennedict Mathurin, center Christian Koloko and forward Dalen Terry. Yet, the Wildcats lead the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (per Bart Torvik). Koloko and Terry didn’t score like Mathurin, but how is Arizona a better offensive team after losing its leading scorer and three NBA draft picks?
Oumar Ballo has developed into a far better offensive player than Koloko ever was, and it’s not even close. That’s enabled Azuolas Tubelis to get more chances against single coverage, which is a major advantage for him.
There’s also the fact that, for four of the starters, this is their second year in Lloyd’s system so the comfort level is very high.
3.) Per Torvik, Saturday’s game pits the nation’s No. 1 offense against the nation’s No. 2 defense. What aspects of the game do you see as spots where the unstoppable force could glean some separation from the immovable object?
Arizona likes to play fast, and so far the only team that’s been successful at slowing that pace is Utah. The Utes also went heavy on defending the paint, begging the Wildcats to shoot from outside and that strategy worked. Indiana didn’t do that and the bigs feasted.
The UA turns it over a lot, and is mostly fine with that if it doesn’t result in transition opportunities for the opponent. Tennessee will want to be aggressive going for the ball before it gets inside, because once it’s there the most likely results are a score or a foul drawn.
4.) Tell Tennessee fans about Arizona’s frontcourt duo of Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo. The Vols saw both last season, but Tubelis was saddled with foul trouble, and Ballo was still playing a reserve role behind Koloko. Did Wildcat fans expect those two to have the kinda seasons they’re having?
Tubelis is perfectly built for this system, which is very Eurocentric and puts the ball in the bigs’ hands as much as possible and expects them to be able to run the floor. It’s somewhat ironic that Sean Miller’s final recruiting class included players like he, Mathurin and Kerr Kriisa who fit better in Lloyd’s offense than anything Miller ran, like he knew who his successor would be.
As for Ballo, he may be Lloyd’s biggest success story (and he found most of Gonzaga’s foreign players). This is their fourth year together, with Ballo redshirting the first and hardly playing the second before transferring to Arizona. He was still a project, but continued dedication to improve his body and stamina has paid huge dividends.
Both guys also pass well, making it harder to double, and Ballo in particular draws 5+ fouls per game.
5.) Other than the aforementioned post players, which players do Vol fans need to be watching? Could there be a surprise performance lurking from somebody else?
Courtney Ramey, the transfer from Texas, is the defensive pest who also brings a ton of experience playing in the kind of game this is expected to be. If the perimeter is where Arizona has to score from he can hit 3s and is more than willing to drive into traffic.
Kerr Kriisa could get hot from 3 or just choose to be a distributor, it’s anyone’s guess, while Pelle Larsson is the closest thing to Dalen Terry on this team and is capable of a big game.
And if Arizona’s bench plays the way it has the last 2 games, someone like Adama Bal or Henri Veesaar could play a huge role.
6.) I assume most Arizona fans are expecting a win — home-court advantage paired with the facts that Tennessee’s offense is suspect and the Vols are a bit banged up. But what say you?
Arizona hasn’t lost at McKale Center under Lloyd, and all of its losses in his tenure have had one thing in common: a bad start and the inability to completely overcome that.
Tennessee will have to assert its style right away and not let up, but that’s going to be hard to do in this environment. Wildcats win by at least 6.