Tennessee is set for their first real test — at least a test that actually counts — on Friday night in Madison, Wisconsin. The Volunteers will head north to face the Wisconsin Badgers, finally paying back the second leg of a home-and-home that was interrupted by COVID back in 2020.
Tennessee has already picked up one with up north this year, beating Michigan State on the road during a preseason charity scrimmage. That win certainly seemed to open some eyes nationally, and they’ll look to back that up with another win against a Big Ten opponent late on Friday night.
Wisconsin opened with a 105-75 win over Arkansas State earlier this week. Tennessee beat Tennessee Tech, 80-42. Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard returns nearly all of his core from a year ago, a season that saw his Badgers go just 20-15 overall with a 9-11 mark in Big Ten play. With just about all of those pieces back in the fold though, Wisconsin should be in for a better campaign this year.
“It is hard early in the year when you look at a team that has got 90% of its production coming back,” Rick Barnes said of Wisconsin. “They did well through the recruiting. Great fan base. Great arena to play in. Early in the year — and I was watching them before I came out to be with you guys — they’re probably closer to midseason form. Like us, you’d expect them to be a little bit ahead and they did play with a faster pace the other night and, I think, one of the coaches told me that they said they wanted to play faster and they did do that.”
Barnes was referencing the 105 point outing against Arkansas State, powered by 20 points from Chucky Hepburn. The junior guard shot 70 percent from the field, and was joined by three others in double-figures.
It’s Arkansas State, so grain of salt, but keep in mind that Wisconsin averaged just 65 points per game a year ago.
“A really good team at passing the ball,” Barnes continued. “A team that really runs good actions. They read well. They read defenses really well. If you try to push them one way, they do a great job of back-cutting. I think they make great penetrating passes and if you get spread out too much again, they do a really good job of back-cutting them and doing those type things to get those easy baskets. They got a post guy they’ll play through and they’ve got guys that can drive it. They’re doing a lot of things. Early in the year, they’re gonna throw a lot of stuff at us and that we’re gonna have to be ready for.”
It’s early, but Wisconsin currently checks in at No. 16 in Kenpom’s efficiency metric. Tennessee ranks ninth in those same rankings.
Another wrinkle for Tennessee will be the status of point guard Zakai Zeigler, who returned to the floor for the first time on Monday night against Tennessee Tech. He was on a pitch count, and it remains to be seen if that will continue going forward.
“You could tell he was frustrated because he wants to play,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “But we’re gonna still again, do what we need to do to give him a chance to have the best year he can have. And I think his minutes will continue to go up, but we’ll still watch it.
“Yesterday was our day off and I asked him, he said, ‘I feel great.’ I asked him anything outta the ordinary or any swelling, he said ‘no.’ He said, ‘I feel good.’ It’s the strength that he’s gotta continue to get (to) where he is balanced on both legs all the time, but he’s close, he’s real close to where he feels like and everyone feels like he’s a hundred percent.”
Barnes started Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Dalton Knecht, Jahmai Mashack and Jonas Aido with Zeigler still limited. It’s probably a good bet that you’ll see that same five open the game on Friday night in Madison.
The early returns on transfers Knecht and Jordan Gainey appear to be significant. It’s games like these where we’ll start to find out if they can get Tennessee over the hump and to that next level. The chemistry may not be all there quite yet, but the added scoring can’t hurt.
Tennessee will take on this road test, take a trip to Honolulu for the Maui Invitational, go to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina and then have a neutral site meeting with NC State. We’ll see how all of that plays out, but one thing’s for sure — Rick Barnes will have his team ready for conference play come January.