The scheduling gods were kind: tomorrow you’ve got football at 7:30 PM, free and clear to watch #17 Tennessee battle #5 Villanova at the Mohegan Sun at 1:00 PM. Twenty-four hours later, it’s a shot at revenge one way or another: #6 Purdue or #18 North Carolina.
These could end up being the best teams Tennessee plays in the regular season. Nova leads the way there in the current AP poll, Purdue in the current KenPom at #4. The Vols play a host of teams just outside the KenPom Top 10 later: #12 Texas Tech, #13 Memphis, #14 Texas, plus Kentucky at #15, Florida at #19, and Alabama at #20. But when it’s all said and done, you may not get a better one-two punch than Villanova and Purdue, if that’s how it ends up going this weekend.
Tennessee’s last Top 10 win was at #6 Kentucky two years ago. The 2019 squad famously got three Top 5 wins: #1 Gonzaga, and a pair of wins over #4 Kentucky. Rick Barnes also got #4 Kentucky in year two in Knoxville, giving him four Top 5 wins in his tenure. A win tomorrow would bring him one step closer to Bruce Pearl’s seven Top 5 wins: #2 Florida in 2006, #5 Florida in 2007, #1 Memphis in 2008, #1 Kansas in 2010, #2 Kentucky in 2010, #5 Ohio State in 2010, and #3 Pittsburgh in 2011.
How comfortable will the Vols be in a shootout? Since emerging on the national stage four years ago, the Vols have played only eight games where both teams scored in the 80s in regulation, with five of them coming in 2019. Tennessee went 5-3 in those games, losing twice to Auburn plus the Sweet 16 against Purdue. But the Vols did punish Memphis and Arkansas in 2019 playing at 80 possessions.
It’s not the pace with Villanova, it’s the efficiency. The Wildcats are shooting 48.8% from the arc through the first three games, two blowouts and an overtime loss to UCLA. And it wasn’t really the offense that cost them against the Bruins: Nova shot 11-of-24 from the arc (45.8%), though only 38.6% from two. They only turned it over seven times.
But UCLA shot 46.9% from the field, 17-of-19 at the line, and was +14 on the glass. They got excellent production from their guards against Villanova’s defense, which currently checks in at 61st in KenPom. Their offense is third, so if the Vols are going to do it, it may have to be by keeping up on the offensive end.
Who will those guys be for Tennessee? Through two games, Tennessee’s leaders in shots are Santiago Vescovi and…Olivier Nkamhoua, which will come as a surprise if you didn’t catch any of the UT-Martin or ETSU games. Nkamhoua has played more minutes than anyone so far, perhaps in part due to John Fulkerson working his way in from the thumb injury. But Nkamhoua is 3-of-5 from the arc and leads the team in rebounds by a mile. This is, so far, not at all the same player you remember.
Two seasons ago, after the Vols beat Florida A&M on December 4 and Nkamhoua had 11 and 13, Rick Barnes said, “We need him, and he alone can change our team with the ability that he has if he will buy into it.” It was an eyebrow-raising comment at the time, with the 2020 Vols looking for production and soon to be without Lamonte Turner the rest of the way. His 23 minutes that day ended up being a season high; he played 21 against Wisconsin over Christmas break, then only saw more than 15 minutes two other times. Last year he only played more than 15 minutes once, and only played 19 total minutes in Tennessee’s last six games.
There’s a lot that Tennessee needs on the defensive end without Yves Pons, and if you haven’t watched us yet, you’ll notice that difference right away. But Nkamhoua is again raising eyebrows for the ways he might change what Tennessee can do on the offensive end, an unexpected bonus for a group we expected to go through Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson. The freshman point guard is right there, third on the team in shot attempts with 10 assists to 4 turnovers so far. Fulkerson is recovering, but two years ago Tennessee’s best basketball absolutely went through him.
These Vols are also launching 30+ threes per game, meaning there is so much newness in what we’ll witness this weekend. Will it be enough to keep up with Villanova, who’ll surely find their own success against a Tennessee defense still figuring out who’s going to protect the rim?
It’s early, but could end up being the biggest test of the regular season. 1:00 PM Saturday on, you guessed it, ESPN News.