The anniversary we remember this week is Schiano Sunday, two years since Tennessee’s football program started its roundabout path to what’s in front of us this weekend. But it’s also two years from a program-changing win for Tennessee Basketball, a story that began and at least closed a chapter with Purdue.
On Thanksgiving Weekend 2017, Tennessee went to the Bahamas and beat #18 Purdue 78-75 in overtime. In the moment, it felt like a great thing for Tennessee’s RPI on Selection Sunday, as the win earned the Vols a shot at Villanova the next day. As we know, the 2017-18 Vols would do far more than sneak into the tournament: the win over Purdue was the beginning of everything we enjoyed the last two seasons, a chapter that ended against those same Boilermakers in another overtime in the Sweet 16 last year.
New faces, so far same results: the Vols are 5-0 and ranked 17th. And this Thanksgiving, Tennessee has another shot to earn marquee wins. One game away is Purdue, again, in what could be an epic rubber match.
But first, Florida State.
The Seminoles are first in also receiving votes and 17th in KenPom. One good thing about the ol’ Emerald Coast Classic: the Vols will get a shot at an opponent of similar quality win or lose on Friday. VCU is undefeated and ranked 20th in the AP poll. Or we can get round three with Purdue, also receiving votes but 10th in KenPom.
The best reason to beat Florida State on Friday: playing at 7:00 PM on Saturday, instead of at 4:00 PM when the Vanderbilt game kicks off.
The Seminoles have been led by Leonard Hamilton since 2003…
He got the Seminoles to the NCAA Tournament four years in a row from 2009-12, and is back on a three-year run and counting including the Elite Eight in 2018 and the Sweet 16 last year.
Two vets lead the way from those teams: senior guard Trent Forest averages 12.2 points and 4.7 assists per game, and is the primary ball-handler. Junior M.J. Walker missed the last three games with a knee injury, but is expected to play Friday. Sophomore Devin Vassell goes 6’7″ and leads the team in scoring, just ahead of Forest at 12.3 per game.
The Seminoles will be just the latest opponent to put a stud freshman on the floor against Tennessee: 6’6″ Patrick Williams was the 26th-rated player in the class of 2019 at 247 Sports (Josiah James was 22nd). He’s getting a lot more time with the ball in his hands than Josiah, scoring 10.8 points per game, blocking shots, and is yet to miss a free throw at 17-of-17.
Florida State lost at Pittsburgh by two in the opener, but then went to Gainesville and dominated Florida 63-51. They held the Gators to 14-of-50 (28%) from the field; Kerry Blackshear got to the line 14 times but didn’t hit a shot. As such, Florida State is currently seventh in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings.
On paper, this plays out like the Washington match-up: the Seminoles do it with defensive and shot-blocking, and can put a pair of seven-footers on the floor with Balsa Koprivica and Dominik Olejniczak. The Vols will be undersized and tested if they go to the rim.
Florida State is also an excellent free-throw shooting team, currently hitting 81.7% as a team. The good news here: Tennessee is one of the best in the nation at defending without fouling. The Vols are ninth nationally in defensive free throw percentage, and eighth in shot blocking percentage. So far, teams that test Tennessee at the rim have failed thanks to Pons, Fulkerson, and Nkamhoua.
Like the foul-line jumper against Washington, the names can change but the style remains for the Vols: Tennessee is second nationally in assist rate, and Lamonte Turner has handled the transition to pure point guard with excellence:
Take nothing away from LaMarcus Golden, who did that on a 5-22 team. But Turner hit that mark in five games. His shot still hasn’t come up to speed (7-of-28 from three), but he’s facilitating Tennessee’s offense like a pro.
One of these games, we’ll probably see a defense good enough to take Tennessee out of its element; we’ll see if Florida State’s guards are good enough to do that to Turner. When that happens, I’ll be curious to see where Tennessee’s offense goes for answers and how many players can create their own shot outside Bowden and Turner. But so far, the Vols are solid on both ends of the floor.
Tennessee had six top-tier non-conference games on its schedule in November and December: Washington, Florida State, Purdue/VCU, Memphis, at Cincinnati, and Wisconsin. Coming into the year, a split of those six games would’ve felt like a tip of the cap. But not only did the Vols outpace expectations against Washington, Cincinnati and Wisconsin have really struggled out of the gate. The games this weekend, along with Memphis, look more and more like the best chances to earn meaningful non-conference wins before the Vols go to Kansas in January.
And for any complaints about not looking our best about Chattanooga – a rite of passage when you’ve had the kind of years we’ve enjoyed since that first Purdue game – a reminder:
We’ll see if the Vols can stay undefeated on Friday at 7:00 PM ET on the CBS Sports Network.