Tennessee limps into the NCAA Tournament, fresh off of a rocky February. The Volunteers dealt with injuries and a tough finishing schedule in the final few weeks, which knocked them down a few seed lines to close things out. When the dust settled, Tennessee landed a No. 4 seed in the East Region.
They draw 13th-seeded Louisiana, the champs of the Sun Belt. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 26-7 overall, finishing second in the regular season Sun Belt standings. They rank top 50 overall in points per game with 78, good for 57th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings.
It’s another familiar face for Rick Barnes, who knows Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin from his days at Texas. Marlin was at Sam Houston State while Barnes was in Austin with the Longhorns.
“I have known Bob Marlin from certainly my time in Texas and his time there,” Barnes said. “Bob is a terrific basketball coach. A great offensive mind. His teams always are so sound. I think we have played them once or twice since we have been there.”
Marlin has been at Louisiana since 2010, holding a 246-173 record. This will be Marlin’s second NCAA Tournament appearance at Louisiana.
His team is anchored by a former five-star prospect. Jordan Brown, a 6-11, 225 pound forward, is averaging 19.4 points per game this year. Brown comes over from Arizona after initially committing to play for Eric Musselman during his time at Nevada.
“Jordan Brown, we recruited here,” Barnes noted on Monday. “He is a McDonald’s All-American and a high-level player. Bob has done a terrific job with him, getting him and putting him in areas on the court where he can be really effective. Really good footwork. Knows what he is doing when he gets the ball. He has got good shooters around him, good point guard play, a really good facilitator.”
Brown is adding 8.7 rebounds and nearly two assists per game. He’s shooting 57 percent from the floor — the clear focal point of the offense. The good news is that Tennessee has plenty to throw at him. Olivier Nkamhoua, Jonas Aidoo, Tobe Awaka and Uros Plavsic all will get their time on Thursday night as the top-ranked Tennessee defense tries to shut down Louisiana’s big man.
“It will be a team effort with everybody,” Barnes said. “We don’t go in, but we are going to have to work hard with doing our work early and not letting him get the deep position that he wants. He has such terrific footwork. We are going to have to work hard and get other players to help where we can. It is all about our guys trying to do the work early and not get as deep as he wants to get it.”
6-7 senior Terence Lewis II joins Brown in the post, averaging 11 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
Louisiana has a couple of sharpshooting guards, too. Senior Greg Williams Jr. is hitting at a 40 percent clip from long range, while sophomore Kentrell Garnett is connecting on 42 percent from deep.
Point guard Themus Fulks makes everything go, putting up six assists per game.
“Really good concepts,” Barnes said of Louisiana’s offense. “He puts his guys in great position to score the ball. He knows where he wants guys on the court and he gets them the ball where they need it and have a guy inside that can score a lot of points and got shooters on the outside. A point guard that knows what he is doing and who to get the ball to and when to get it there.”
In some of their bigger games this year, Louisiana lost to Texas 100-72. They beat SMU 76-72 and lost to Drake 76-64. The Ragin’ Cajuns split with Troy and lost in the regular season to regular season champs Southern Miss, 75-61.
Tennessee is coming off of a loss to Missouri, one where they just simply ran out of steam late in the game. The Volunteers are on shaky ground right now, still adjusting to life without point guard Zakai Zeigler. Tennessee is 2-2 without him and 5-7 in their last 12. The momentum isn’t exactly going in the right direction entering the NCAA Tournament.
Still, Tennessee remains a double-digit favorite. The Volunteers are out to 11.5 point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
Tip-off is set for 9:40 p.m. ET in Orlando on Thursday night.