The fruits of Tennessee’s labor will be put to the test for the first time.
After a challenging non-conference schedule, No. 14 Tennessee is set to begin SEC play Wednesday night against No. 19 Alabama at 9 p.m. EST in the Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes scheduled Tennessee the demanding non-conference slate he did so that when it came time for conference play, the Vols would be prepared for whatever they might face. Now, on the eve of SEC competition and having completed the bulk of the non-conference schedule, the Vols have accomplished exactly what Barnes hoped.
After falling to Villanova in November, the Vols (9-2) rattled off a four-game win streak, starting with a 17-point win over ranked North Carolina and ending with an impressive victory at Colorado. The Vols followed an overtime loss to Texas Tech with the three-game win streak they are currently riding, and their most recent game was a 77-73 upset over No. 6 Arizona at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It’s safe to say the Vols have learned from their non-conference losses in the exacted fashion Barnes wanted.
"I think we are (prepared),” Barnes said. “We tried to prepare our team with a tough non-league schedule, trying to hit as many different variables as we could with the schedule. I think our guys have responded, I do think that we've learned from our mistakes and I think we've learned from other teams and what they how they go about it. So yeah, I think we're ready.”
In Alabama, Tennessee will get a talented team that has not quite lived up to its potential. After winning the SEC a year ago, Alabama entered the season as one of the conference favorites. However 12 games in, Alabama has been wildly inconsistent.
The Crimson Tide (9-3) won 8 of their first 9 games, including back-to-back ranked wins over No. 3 Gonzaga and No. 14 Houston. Since then, Alabama has also lost to Memphis and Davidson at home.
Davidson shot 53% from the field and 50% from three-point range in its upset, something that Tennessee – a team with a sharpshooting mentality of its own – will look to continue.
"Obviously they're an outstanding team,” Barnes said of Alabama. “Like all of us at certain times during the year, they've been through the ups and downs of it, but you know, when you think about it, you know what they like to do in terms of attacking the basket or the 3-point shot, and so you have to certainly know personnel as much as anything going into this game, because they're going to work hard and get you in the rotation.”
Alabama has more potential than its record reflects. The Crimson Tide has three players averaging double figures, including Jaden Shackelford with a team-high 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Under head coach Nate Oats, there is no reason Alabama cannot be a leading player in the SEC. Barnes believes as much, so he isn’t writing off the Tide quite yet.
“Like in every game, I think rebounding is a key. But it'll take a great effort,” Barnes said. “You think about some of their wins and how they're capable of playing, and we know they're explosive and can put up some numbers. They can come in flurries and we have got to do a good job on the other end of taking care of the ball and making sure we get the shots that we want.”
Even with the grueling non-conference opponents the Vols played, flipping to SEC-level competition is always a challenge. As the Vols prepare to make the shift against Alabama, Barnes relies on his veterans to let the newcomers know how it’s done.
“Whenever I talk to the young guys I just tell them to enjoy it,” junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “We're going to be playing two games a week. That's what we're here for, we're here for basketball, especially right now since we're out of school too. We're really just living life, playing basketball and going home, relaxing and doing whatever we want to do. I think a big message from me will be just enjoy this time, because it's going to go by pretty quick.”