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Tom Izzo: Tennessee ‘definitely a top five team’

High praise.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee basketball unofficially returns this weekend, with the Volunteers heading north to face Michigan State in a televised scrimmage. The game will benefit Maui, which is still recovering from wildfires back in the summer.

The Volunteers had a similar meeting with Gonzaga last year ahead of the start of the season. They also met with Michigan State for a closed-door scrimmage. Tom Izzo was impressed with last year’s Tennessee team, and he’s even more impressed with the prospects of this one.

“I mean this team is the deepest, best team I’ve seen in awhile,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Deepest. I mean, like 12 deep. And we played them last year, so we know about them. Very well-coached, but they’ve got a lot back and they’re a physical team. so we have to rebound better … this team we’re playing is definitely a top-five team.”

Tennessee brings back veterans Santiago Vescovi (who will be out on Sunday), Josiah-Jordan James, Jahmai Mashack and Jonas Aidoo. They’re going to get back point guard Zakai Zeigler eventually, all while bringing along young talents in Tobe Awaka and Freddie Dilione. In addition, Tennessee added big-time shooting in the form of Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey.

They’re ridiculously deep — a minimum set to go nine or ten deep. Even guys like DJ Jefferson, Cam Carr, JP Estrella and Cade Phillips could find playing time this year in the rotation.

“They are worthy of everything, their rank,” Izzo continued. “And the backcourts courts will be good. The front courts are gonna be good and the wings are gonna be good.

“So our biggest problem now is they have so many different pieces, it’s figuring out who’s gonna start. I’m not even sure they know. And then who’s gonna play the most and at what position are they gonna play? And that’s the part of this that’s a little harder than normal. It’s harder to get a scouting report on them.”

Tennessee has plenty of lineup flexibility on this roster, and I think we’re all interested in seeing how it looks when Zeigler gets back. The big point of interest is at the power forward spot, where Tobe Awaka should see plenty of time. But what about when he’s not on the floor? Barnes will likely opt to go a little smaller with Knecht and James. Will Estrella and Phillips get minutes in the frontcourt?

We’ll start to get some answers to all of those questions on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 on the Big Ten Network.