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UT Forward Brandon Hunter-Hatfield (2) contests Lenoir-Rhyne Forward TJ Nesmith (21) during the University of Tennessee vs Lenoir-Rhyne men's exhibition game on Oct. 30, 2021 at Thompson-Boiling Arena, Knoxville, TN. 

College basketball was perhaps the sport affected most by COVID-19 restrictions. Games were being rescheduled as the season progressed, weeks and sometimes even days before they were slated to begin.

The same can be said for the inverse — more games were postponed or outright cancelled in 2020 than any year prior, for obvious reasons relating to a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Most of that is behind Tennessee basketball, a unit that faces a grueling non-conference schedule before facing an equally daunting SEC slate from mid-January onward.

Tennessee had three quality non-conference opponents last year, all of which it beat — Kansas, Cincinnati and Colorado. This year, that non-conference schedule only gets tougher.

Here’s a look at some of Tennessee’s toughest and most important non-conference games this season.

Nov. 20 — Villanova

The Vols will play six preseason top-25 teams this season and that isn’t including four more — Arizona, Texas Tech, LSU and Mississippi State — which are labeled as “receiving votes.”

The best team Tennessee is scheduled against, according to that loose metric, is Villanova out of the Big East.

The Wildcats return Colin Gillespie, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels to a potent group coached by Jay Wright, losing Jerimiah Robinson-Earl to the NBA draft. Villanova is looking to build on a down year — a Sweet 16 appearance — following the season-ending injury of Gillespie that occurred in late March last season.

Tennessee’s matchup with the Wildcats takes place at the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament in Connecticut, a neutral site contest that will challenge the Vols early. This may be the most important game of the year for the Big Orange from a “team identity” perspective.

Dec. 18 — Memphis

Another early-season test takes place at another neutral site — Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.

Memphis coach Penny Hardaway and the Tigers return to face Tennessee for the third time in five years, and this year may have the most combined talent of the bunch.

The Tigers are rated as the No. 12 team in America in the AP preseason top-25 after signing two top-10 recruits in Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren before the deadline. Adding those talented freshman to a returning cast of Lester Quinones, Alex Lomax and Landers Noelley makes Memphis a tough out for the Vols come mid-December.

Memphis is also one of the last teams the Vols will play before SEC action returns in early January.

Jan. 29 — Texas

There’s a lot of time before Barnes returns to his old stomping grounds, but tension is already rising between the two UTs.

Perhaps it’s the sour taste Texas baseball left in the college world series, besting the Vols and losing to eventual champion Mississippi State. Maybe it’s the stage of being the marquee matchup of the Big 12/SEC challenge. One thing is for sure — Barnes and Tennessee will head into Longhorn Country expecting a win against Barnes’ former school.

Texas is listed as the No. 5 team in the nation in the AP poll, partly because of former runner-up head coach Chris Beard, who took Texas Tech to the wire against eventual champion Virginia in 2019.

Beard has Texas ready to compete at a high level just as Texas Tech did. The Longhorns return Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres while adding key Minnesota transfer Marcus Carr and Vanderbilt transfer Dylan Disu. Texas has only one freshman on the roster — four-star small forward prospect, Jaylon Tyson.

Other notable matchups

Tennessee’s tough non-conference schedule doesn’t stop there. The Vols also have notable matchups against Colorado, Texas Tech and Arizona — not to mention one of Purdue or North Carolina in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

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