Saturday was the game we had to win from a fan perspective; such is the nature of rivalry. And while the Tennessee/Memphis series seems destined for hiatus, the rivalry itself picked a mighty fine ending to sustain animosity for years to come. It seems our only hope of settling this one on the floor is in the NCAA Tournament, provided Memphis can actually make one.
Clearly, we lament the lost opportunity. But from a resume perspective, Wednesday was always the one to get.
That’s true for Arizona too, who on Tuesday morning was projected as the number one overall seed in Bart Torvik’s predictive bracketology. After this one, the Wildcats go into Pac-12 play, where they will find compelling competition from UCLA and USC…but little elsewhere. If you’re making the case for Arizona as the best team in the land on Selection Sunday, a win in Knoxville to pair with the 83-79 victory at Illinois would be a key piece of the puzzle.
Meanwhile, the Vols will get plenty of other chances to beat Top 20 KenPom foes, with remaining games against Alabama, LSU (x2), Kentucky (x2), Auburn, and Texas. But, as noted, this might be the best team we play all year.
That they might indeed be the best in all the land is a large feather in the cap of Tommy Lloyd, who spent two decades as an assistant with Mark Few at Gonzaga. It surprised to me realize Sean Miller was at Zona for a dozen years; he took them to the Elite Eight in 2011, then again in 2014 and 2015. But in the last six years, they only made the Sweet 16 once, and self-imposed a tournament ban last season en route to Miller’s termination tied to the NCAA investigation. They were 17-9 (11-9) last year, 29th in KenPom.
They were 47th in this season’s opening projections. They leapt into the Top 30 via a 52-point beat down of North Dakota State. In Las Vegas, they beat Wichita State in overtime to face #4 Michigan. And they dropped the hammer in an 80-62 victory, getting 22 points from 7’1″ Christian Koloko.
In their first true road game, they beat Oregon State by 35. In their second, at Illinois, Koloko was held to four points. But they won anyway behind 30 from Bennedict Mathurin, an 83-79 victory to vault them into the Top 10 and the top lines of bracket conversations.
Lloyd has them looking like Gonzaga in their ability to put elite big men on the floor together and still run a modern offense. Gonzaga does this with Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, who go even larger than the Rui Hachimura/Brandon Clarke combo we saw three Decembers ago. Arizona puts Koloko on the floor with 6’11” freshman Azuolas Tubelis, who will let one go from three. They’ll spell those guys with 7’0″ Oumar Ballo. And they’ll regularly put four guys on the floor at 6’6″+.
In doing all this, Arizona runs the third-fastest pace in college basketball, with the third-highest assist rate. And, as you might expect, these dudes make it very difficult to score at the rim.
It’s easier to tell you where they’ve been lucky than what they’ve been bad at, which is very little. Michigan shot 1-of-14 from the arc against them. Opposing teams are only hitting 61.3% of their free throws against them; Michigan and Illinois were both below 70%, but nothing crazy. The Illini went bombs away, knocking down 16-of-36 (44.4%) from the arc…and lost. Again, there’s a Gonzaga-like feel in looking at them, thinking you can play really well, and still get beat.
If there’s good news: Rick Barnes has had relative success against Gonzaga. His first two teams here were feisty in defeat to the Bulldogs. And, of course, Tennessee got the best of #1 Gonzaga three years ago in Phoenix, the best team the Vols have beaten in the KenPom era. That took a Herculean effort from Admiral Schofield; if Tennessee gets Arizona tomorrow, we may be talking about someone else in heroic fashion.
The best teams we’ve faced have gone on to lose to even better teams: Texas Tech to Gonzaga by 14, Villanova to Purdue by six and then Baylor by 21 (and then Creighton by 20, yikes). Our best win is North Carolina, who just got touched up by Kentucky 98-69. Colorado gets Kansas tonight; we’ll see if they can play their way above the bubble.
The SEC will provide a regular dose of, “How good are we?” But if you’re looking for the top-line conversation we thought we were having against Villanova, this one may be as close as we get all year. What can Tennessee do against one of the best and hottest teams in the land? How do the Vols, who played their best basketball of the year with three point guards on the floor against UNC, handle elite size? And if we do indeed have one of the best defenses in college basketball, what will it look like against this offense?
Much to learn here, and much to gain. Memphis will still be in the atmosphere this week. But Arizona will tell us much more about Tennessee.
Wednesday, 7:00 PM, ESPN2.