The good news: a bye week isn’t really a bye week when your basketball team is playing a Top 20 opponent. The bad news: because everyone not on a bye is still playing football, all your television channels are spoken for. So we welcome the Vols to ESPN+, which means you can watch this game for $4.99 (per month if you don’t cancel it) or as part of an expanded Disney+ subscription.
A tangent: Tennessee’s football media guide includes a section called “Vols On Television”, a ludicrous premise to anyone under the age of 30. You have to go back to a game between the 4-4 Vols and Memphis in November 1994 to find the last time a Tennessee football game simply wasn’t available to watch. But between 1989 all the way up to the first game of the Butch Jones era, VideoSeat carried 47 Tennessee football games on pay per view; some who lived outside the Volunteer State in the latter part of that run will remember fondly the old ESPN GamePlan package carrying these games. The first one of those PPV games is the most famous: September 9, 1989, when the Vols went to #6 UCLA late on the east coast and rolled to a 24-6 victory, sparking Tennessee’s “decade” of dominance from 1989-2001. The media guide lists the Vols as 46-1 in those games (thanks, Wyoming); it’s the nature of the beast that they’d be less interesting.
Even the term “pay per view” seems strange now unless you’re a wrestling fan, and it may fade from that vocabulary too over time. The good news for basketball: the Vols aren’t playing Austin Peay, and you’re getting #20 Washington at a much better price.
The Huskies leaped from the also receiving votes pile with a stunning comeback against #16 Baylor in the Armed Forces Classic from Anchorage. Baylor went up 10 with 5:38 to play. They hit a single free throw the rest of the way home.
Tennessee might see each of the three highest-rated freshmen in college basketball this season. We’ll see what happens with James Wiseman at number one. Anthony Edwards – there’s two o’s in Goose – is at Georgia, he’s number two. And number three is Isaiah Stewart, a 6’9″ 245 lbs. forward at UDub. They threw him in the fire right away with 36 minutes against Baylor, and he went 7-of-13 for 15 points and 7 rebounds. Fellow 6’9″ Top 10 freshman Jaden McDaniels played 33 minutes and had 18 points, going 7-of-8 at the line.
The leading scorer was 6’6″ junior Nahziah Carter with 23 points on 4-of-6 from the arc. And you’ll remember Quade Green, who transferred from Kentucky. He scored double figures in each of the 2018 UT/UK games; it’s a different role here, as he had only two points but dished out nine assists for the Huskies in the opener.
Washington was already pulling in elite talent: Markelle Fultz was the top pick in the 2017 draft, and Matisse Thybulle is getting 15 minutes a night as a rookie with the Sixers. But the transition from Lorenzo Romar to Mike Hopkins following a 9-22 finish with both of them on the roster has led to actual wins. Hopkins was an assistant at Syracuse for more than 20 years, the coach-in-waiting for Jim Boeheim who, it seems, got tired of waiting. Washington rebounded to 21-13 and an NIT appearance in Hopkins’ first year, then 27-9 with a Pac-12 title last season. They routed Utah State in an 8/9 game, then got routed by North Carolina.
After finishing 224th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings in 2017, Hopkins has made defense the focus: 73rd in 2018, 18th last season, and 13th in the early stages this year. The big freshmen protect the rim, and they do not tolerate nonsense: McDaniels and 6’9″ junior Hameir Wright each blocked four shots in the opener, then Stewart got five against Mount St. Mary’s. If we don’t get at least one good showdown between Yves Pons and one of these dudes, I’ll be disappointed.
So there are obvious issues for Tennessee in going against a lineup featuring three 6’9″ guys. It’s a thin bench for Washington, so foul trouble becomes an issue both ways. The Vols haven’t done much in the way of getting to the line in the first two games, and are shooting just 60% when they arrive. What Tennessee did do was torch Murray State from the arc at 12-of-22. Getting a high volume of shots from three was sometimes a sign of trouble last season. But without Williams, Schofield, and Alexander, the Vols may lean more toward the three this season. Washington’s excellent rim protection should be a good indicator of how Barnes sees that dilemma.
But what also comes with playing a bunch of freshmen: turnovers. The Huskies survived 20 in the opener, then added 15 including five from McDaniels against Mount St. Mary’s. The Huskies are giving it away on 25.1% of their possessions. That’s opportunity.
Here’s a phrase you don’t really use when you spend a month at number one, but might be applicable some this season: Washington might be a bad match-up for Tennessee. This combination of size and skill is rare, and will be the biggest test for Pons, Fulkerson, and certainly Nkamhoua to date. You won’t see much of the Huskies playing so far away, but they’ll be worth keeping an eye on; the Bracket Matrix has them as a nine seed, but the ceiling is obviously quite high.
This first run of marquee non-conference foes features Tennessee – a seven seed in the Bracket Matrix – going against teams right on their level. Washington is ranked 20th, and all four teams in the Emerald Coast Classic – the Vols, Florida State, VCU, and Purdue – are between 26-32 in also receiving votes. Group them together, and 2-1 would be a job well done. But we’re not used to thinking that way after last season…and there’s no reason to start until losing makes you.
Can the more experienced Vols impose their will, turn Washington over, and shoot well enough from three to get the win in Toronto? The first real answers will come Saturday at 5:00 PM on ESPN+.