Tennessee basketball flipped a switch after dropping its first game of the season, 71-53 to then-No. 5 ranked Villanova last Saturday.
After all, the Vols still had one game to go in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament field against No. 18 North Carolina.
“When we walked in on Sunday morning, the focus with our guys was phenomenal,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “… Santi(ago Vescovi) and some of the younger guys, you could tell they were really locked in, which was impressive."
Junior guard Vescovi and freshman point guards Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler terrorized North Carolina’s defensive backcourt, combining for 49 of Tennessee’s 89 points in a dominating 17-point win over the Tar Heels.
And with that the weekend was not a total loss for the Tennessee Volunteers squad, one that looked uninspired in its previous bout against the Wildcats a day earlier.
“Obviously, disappointed in the way we started the game against Villanova,” Barnes said. “But you have to give them credit. I think they came out, they were locked and loaded and ready to play.”
“I think we were, too. I think in some ways, we were a little overhyped there. We couldn't make a shot. Then we got to where we weren't even trying to play basketball. We were just hoping we'd make a shot.”
Vescovi’s 17 points and 9 rebounds were a major factor in the bounce-back win against the Tar Heels, and emphasized the importance of playing with confidence against tougher opponents heading forward into Friday’s home matchup against in-state opponent Tennessee Tech.
“I'm confident with the whole team,” Vescovi said. “I know my teammates have my back every single time we're out there. That's what gives me the most confidence. Knowing that I'm there for them too, I think that's just the thing we have.”
“We're a family here with each other. We all have the same goal."
The split weekend did more good than harm this early in the season. For instance, Barnes learned of the potential of a three-guard lineup that could be useful against teams that struggle to rebound well later in the season — including Memphis and Alabama.
Every game is different though. Tenured head coach John Pelphrey’s Golden Eagles come to Knoxville with one of the better rebounding squads in the country by the numbers — something that may spell an issue for Barnes’ experiment of having three players on the court under 6-foot-4.
“Every game is going to have its different personality,” Barnes said. “ Every game does. So based on what that personality brings from that game, that's who we'll be playing."
Junior guard Josiah-Jordan James’ status is uncertain for Friday’s matchup against the Golden Eagles with an injured finger, a blow considering James’ prowess on the boards this season.
“We're still waiting to see (on James’ availability against Tennessee Tech)," Barnes said. “(Associate Director of Sports Medicine) Chad (Newman) is still doing some work with them … we're still not really sure where he is at."
Though they have posted strong offensive rebounding numbers this year, the Golden Eagles struggle in most other areas of the court. Tennessee Tech ranks among the nation’s worst in defensive field goal percentage.
Offensively, it’s hard to mistake the Golden Eagles for Villanova or North Carolina. Tennessee Tech has shot near the bottom from the field in 2021, hovering around 45% per game.
The Golden Eagles are looking for their second win against the Volunteers Friday. Tennessee Tech’s only win over the Vols came in 1996 by a score of 73-62.