olivier fgcu

KNOXVILLE, TN - Tennessee Forward Olivier Nkamhoua (13) during the game against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles at Thompson-Boling Arena on Nov. 16, 2022.

No. 22 Tennessee travels to Paradise Island, The Bahamas, this week to take part in the Battle 4 Atlantis, a prestigious tournament with a talented and diverse field.

The Vols take on Butler in their first game of the tournament Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m ET.

Tennessee had a bounce back game last week, defeating Florida Gulf Coast just days after a humiliating loss to Colorado. The Vols were lackluster against the Buffs, taking careless shots and turning the ball over all game.

“We didn’t shoot the ball like we know we’re capable of shooting it,” assistant coach Justin Gainey said. “That can shake you a little bit.”

Tennessee looked like a completely different team against FGCU, shooting efficiently, taking care of the ball and dominating Colorado on defense.

“I think from a defensive standpoint, we really took a huge step,” Gainey said. “Guys came out with a defensive mindset.”

That defensive mindset is something Tennessee has encompassed for years under head coach Rick Barnes. The offense has taken some steps over the years, but ultimately Tennessee’s identity lies in its defense.

“At the end of the day that’s what we hang our hat on, that’s what this program hangs its hat on,” Gainey said. “We can guard with the best of them.”

The early season has seen the emergence of several key players for Tennessee. One of those players is Jahmai Mashack, who had a career-high 10 points against FGCU. Mashack has the potential to be a major offensive threat, though his main role is a defensive one.

“(Mashack) is a coachable kid,” Gainey said. “He’s worked really hard on his game. Coach Barnes has been great in identifying his role and now he’s doing a great job with accepting it.”

Another player emerging is freshman Julian Phillips, who got his feet wet against two tough Michigan State and Gonzaga teams. Those two games helped Phillips gain some major experience before the season even started.

“You think about the games he’s played in as a freshman – he’s played against some veteran guys,” Gainey said. “You look at Michigan State, you look at Gonzaga – those are two high level teams. I think he’s gradually starting to feel a lot more comfortable in his role.”

Tennessee now shifts its focus to Butler (3-1), which is coming off two dominant wins over Saint Francis and The Citadel.

“It’s a good basketball team and I feel like they have an identity of who they are,” Gainey said. “Everybody’s kind of bought into that role. They’ve been banged up a little, but they haven’t stopped fighting.”

Tennessee will play either BYU or USC depending on the outcomes of the two games. The Vols also have the opportunity to face defending champion Kansas and talented NC State, Wisconsin and Dayton teams.

No matter who Tennessee faces, the games will be opportunities to continue growing and forming its identity.

“I think it will allow us to catch some type of rhythm out there,” Gainey said. “In back-to-back games, you’re able to make your adjustments and all that good stuff. I think it’s good in that sense and also just for our guys, being around each other for that length of time and getting to spend time with each other.”

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