Two big truths from Tennessee’s last outing against Louisiana: one, “Does this team have anyone who can guard Grant Williams?” is still the first question to ask. When the answer is no, you get Friday’s performance: 31 points and 7 rebounds made Williams #2 in the early KenPom Player of the Year standings. (Zion Williamson is third, for what it’s worth.)
But we already knew about him. The bigger news: as we speculated in our season preview, the Vols gave some of the minutes that went to James Daniel last year to Yves Pons. Then they put the 6’6″ Pons on Louisiana’s point guard. And it worked.
Aside from all the excitement about what Pons’ athleticism can do on the offensive end, if he can give the Vols quality bench minutes while harassing the other team’s point guard? That levels up an already-great Tennessee defense. It’s early, but it was a very encouraging sign. We’ll get our chance to see more against major conference competition now: Georgia Tech, then Louisville, with #1 Kansas lurking.
First, Georgia Tech. A four-year series with the Yellow Jackets comes to an end tonight. Rick Barnes’ first team fell by two points in his second game, victimized by a 35/27/53 shooting line (FG/3P/FT%). One of the earliest signs of what could be under Barnes was the second game with the Yellow Jackets: after near misses against Wisconsin and Oregon in Maui, the Vols obliterated Georgia Tech 81-58 in Knoxville. Tennessee’s leading scorers that day were a freshman named Grant Williams and point guard Shembari Phillips, who eventually transferred to…Georgia Tech. He had to sit out last year, when the Vols won 77-70 in Atlanta behind 24 off the bench from Lamonte Turner. But he started GT’s season opener against Lamar, scoring 10 points with four assists and three steals in an 88-69 win.
Josh Pastner’s crew started ACC play 3-1 last year with wins over Miami and Notre Dame. They were still 11-11 (4-5) at the end of January. Then they lost seven straight, six by double digits. A first round exit in the ACC Tournament made them 13-19 (6-12) on the season, a disappointing end after an NIT runner-up finish the year before.
Josh Okogie is now a Minnesota Timberwolf, but the Yellow Jackets bring back guards Brandon Alston and Jose Alvarado to team with Phillips in the back court. Alvarado excelled in stealing the ball last season, finishing 131st nationally in steal percentage.
What to know about tonight’s match-up:
- This was simply a bad shooting team last year. Georgia Tech finished 283rd in FG% and 325th in three point percentage (31.8%). Alvarado is their best returning shooter from the arc and he hit only 37%.
- Last year Georgia Tech’s best basketball was about defending inside the arc. The Yellow Jackets surrendered just 45.4% from two, 24th nationally. They finished 23rd in blocked shots; 6’10” Sylvester Ogbonda looks to be the primary threat there, who played sparingly last year due to injuries. By contrast, teams splashed 37.9% from behind the arc against the Yellow Jackets last year, 320th nationally. The Vols are already good at creating open threes, but it could be an even easier task tonight.
- A patient pace? Last year Georgia Tech was 277th in tempo, almost even with the Vols at 282nd. Tennessee looked plenty good against Louisiana, who loves to go up-tempo. The Yellow Jackets will be a good early test to see if the Vols want to go any faster this season against a team that won’t encourage them to do so. We know the Vols can win in a number of different ways. Let’s see if they prefer to speed Georgia Tech up just a bit.
It’s a late start: 9:00 PM ET on ESPN2. Last chance to catch the Vols before they’re in New York for Thanksgiving next week.