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Rick Barnes talks Tennessee’s win over Michigan State

What a start.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament East Regional-Florida Atlantic vs Tennessee Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee basketball is back, and you couldn’t ask for much more to (unofficially) open the season. The Volunteers went on the road this afternoon and beat Michigan State, who will begin the season ranked as a top five team.

The ninth-ranked Volunteers took down the Spartans, holding off a late charge for the win. Jordan Gainey hit a free throw with one second left on the clock to seal the 89-88 win.

No Zakai Zeigler or Santiago Vescovi

The most impressive part? Tennessee was missing two key players. Neither Zeigler or Vescovi played today for the Volunteers, leaving the door open for big performances from Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey. More on that later.

The staff played it safe today with Zeigler, who is oh-so-close to returning from a torn ACL suffered in March. Vescovi missed today’s game to be with his family as they deal with the passing of his grandmother.

“We had some guys out there that, now they practiced together obviously, and again, you know Michigan State’s going to keep fighting back and do what they do,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “But that was, we seemed to have an answer to it. I’m happy with our guys because I didn’t know how we were gonna respond.”

Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey appear to be legit

Both of Tennessee’s transfer guards absolutely lit up Michigan State today. Missing two huge parts of the offense, it was Knecht and Gainey picking up the slack and pouring it on early. Knecht ended up with 28 points while Gainey added 20 of his own.

Knecht shot 3-9 from deep and Gainey hit 4-7 from three point range. Both showed no fear, and absolutely fired at will. What has Tennessee been missing? Shooting — consistent shooting. With these two in the rotation now, that issue may be resolved. We felt that way coming home from the tour of Italy, and today certainly drove that point home even harder.

Barnes — in typical Barnes fashion — was focused on Knecht’s defense after the game.

“I’ll be honest with you, I mean, offensively yes, I have (seen him play at that level),” Barnes said. “We think offensively that he’s an extremely gifted player, but the way he came out and played defensive star the game I have not seen that at any point in time, which is a good thing because it’s on film now. And he’s raised the bar, which is a good thing. Because I think he proved to himself today that if he wants to lock in and get it done, he can.”

Barnes was impressed with Gainey embracing the moment with the game on the line.

“Jordan’s had a big target on his back,” Barnes said. “As a freshman, as you know, leads the country in three-point shooting. And last year, every game he played, he was a target of everybody’s scouting report. Here’s what I do know, going at the end of the game, when he went up there in practice, when we’re working on situations and guys go up there and they’ve gotta make a free throw for us to execute what we need to execute. If they don’t, I’ll say, you’re gonna run a 17, if you miss, put some pressure on him. He’s the one guy that always wants to go up there. He does. He likes that moment.”

Hot start, cold finish

In the opening five minutes of the game, Tennessee built a 17-1 lead. Again, it was Gainey and Knecht powering the attack as the Volunteers hit seven of their first eight shots. Tennessee shot over 50 percent from the field in the first half, but that pace didn’t last.

Michigan State never went away, clawing back into the game to keep it close. The Spartans would close the gap late in the second half, nailing a three on a botched in-bounds play from Tennessee to tie it up. Thankfully, Gainey was able to hit one of two free throws to ice it.

“When we jumped out early, they got back in the game by us turning the ball over and that was due to them,” Barnes said. “I mean, we got sloppy a few times, but a lot of it had to do with their physicality and making us work to get it in.”

Tennessee, again playing without Zeigler and Vescovi, had 14 first half turnovers. That stat alone kept Michigan State alive.

Other notes

After starting at point guard on the Italy trip, Freddie Dilione hardly played this afternoon. The redshirt freshman guard saw just 14 points, even with Zeigler sidelined. Jordan Gainey got the majority of the time at lead guard, while Jahmai Mashack also handled some responsibilities there.

“I think Freddie is going be fine,” Barnes said. “I do. I think this good for him. Again, a lot of the things that he likes to do, he’s gonna have to change because a lot of things he likes to do. When he was struggling, I mean, he was out there and we were determined we’re gonna leave him in, see if he can play through it. And I thought, again, his teammates really encouraged him. They were really trying. Because he was getting frustrated because I don’t think he’s had people come at him like that off the drive, pressing into him.”

JP Estrella also played sparingly, and interestingly enough, Cade Phillips received more minutes than he did. Phillips has received some praise in recent weeks for his performances in practice.

Tennessee will have another scrimmage on Halloween night against Lenoir-Rhyne. They’ll officially open the season against Tennessee Tech on November 6th.