The Tennessee basketball team learned some harsh lessons on its Thanksgiving trip to New York, and not the ones that involve eating too much turkey.
Succumbing to a late push from second-ranked Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship, the Vols are looking for a different outcome at Sunday’s inaugural Jerry Colangelo Classic against No. 1 Gonzaga.
That all starts with getting back to work on the basics, and for head coach Rick Barnes, that means not being afraid of the bright lights on the game’s biggest stages.
“I thought we were a little too emotional (for that game), because games like this are important” Barnes said. “To be the program we want to be, you have to be willing to play a demanding schedule.”
Against the Bulldogs, the Vols will not only be facing the top-ranked team in the country, but the No. 1 shooting team as well.
Gonzaga is currently knocking down shots at a 54 percent clip, while mustering up nearly 100 points on a nightly basis. Overcoming the Duke Blue Devils just weeks ago, Mark Few’s team will be looking to further bolster their top-ranking, as they seek to earn their second victory over a top-10 team.
Despite the national attention that inevitably comes with facing the nation’s top team, the Vols aren’t letting the bright lights of a nationally-televised game deter their preparation.
“It’s going to be a talented matchup of two teams and we’re excited for it,” Grant Williams said. “We’re competitors, so we’ll be amped up, but that’s part of it.”
On the opposite side, Tennessee boasts the fifth-best field goal percentage defense, allowing their opponents to hit on just 36 percent of their shot attempts on a nightly basis.
Holding Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to 32 percent on Sunday, the Vols have allowed just two opponents to eclipse the 40 percent mark. They also defend the three-point line at a .287 clip, despite opponents launching 25.4 attempts per game from that distance.
For Tennessee, the challenge begins with containing the Bulldogs on the offensive end.
“They’re a talented team and they have a talented coach and offense,” Williams said. “They understand what they’re doing and it’s going be up to us to understand that on the defensive end.”
Seeking to record their first victory over a top-ranked team in over a decade, the Vols have a prime opportunity to overcome a possible lingering hangover following their loss to the Jayhawks.
Under Few, Gonzaga has not lost double-digit games since the 2010 season, when they totaled 10. At 9-0 on the season, they are on pace to total more than 30 victories for the third consecutive season.
Looking to repeat as SEC Regular Season Champions for the first time in program history, a win would go a long way in bolstering the Vols’ championship hopes.
While still a month away from conference play, Barnes feels that every game is important as Tennessee prepares itself for a potentially deep tournament run.
“I think these games are really important for that,” Barnes said. “I have great respect for Mark and his program.”