Two weeks ago, Rick Barnes traveled to the Barclay’s Center with one of the top-ranked basketball teams in the country. Three years prior, Barnes’ squad participated in the same Thanksgiving week tournament. That team, though, finished the season 15-19 in Barnes’ first season on Rocky Top.
This year is quite the difference so far. But just like in his first season, the Vols are set to take on Gonzaga following that trip to New York.
In Barnes’ first season, Tennessee made its way out to Seattle, where it fell 86-79 to Gonzaga. The Vols trailed by 16 at the half but led at times during the second half, but Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer combined for 60 points to push the Zags to the win.
A year later, the two teams met again, this time in Nashville. The game’s script followed the same script from the year before. Tennessee trailed as many as 21 but fought back to within a couple of points in the second half. No. 8 Gonzaga would go on to win 86-76.
On Sunday, the Vols will look to rewrite the script that plagued them against Gonzaga during Barnes’ first two seasons.
“They (Gonzaga) overwhelmed us at the start of the game,” Barnes said on Tuesday, also noting that Tennessee fought back. “Then the last four minutes their experience showed up and they beat us.”
The Bulldogs enter this year’s contest as the No. 1 team in the country, and this is arguably head coach Mark Few’s most talented team he’s ever had in his 20 years at Gonzaga. Led by Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Josh Perkins, the Zags once again have experience.
But Tennessee also has the experience it didn’t possess a couple of years ago. Against the Zags in Nashville, Grant Williams, Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, Admiral Schofield, and Kyle Alexander all recorded 12 minutes or more of playing time, but only Williams and Bowden were starters. On Sunday, Williams, Schofield, and Alexander make up three of the Vols’ five starters, while Bowden and Turner are viewed as starters despite playing key roles off the bench. Even Jordan Bone, the fourth piece of the starting lineup, played a lot of minutes that season, though he sat out against Gonzaga due to a foot injury.
“Hopefully we (Tennessee) can play better than we did in both of those games,” Barnes said. “Mark’s teams have always been very, very good. Extremely well-coached on both ends.”
Barnes will lean on his team’s experience this weekend in the Jerry Colangelo Classic. Against Kansas the day after Thanksgiving, the experience didn’t show up early on. The Vols began the game too emotional, and as a result, started off sluggish on offense, missing 15 of their first 20 shots.
“Hopefully, we won’t be like that going forward,” Barnes responded when asked if his team learned from the big stage against Kansas. “I think that’s a really good question.”
Coming out emotional against Kansas is something Barnes hoped his players learned from.
“Yeah, I like to think that is going to happen,” Barnes said. “Every game, you learn some things.”
Tennessee is coming off a 79-51 win over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi on Sunday afternoon. In the win, the Vols shot 46 percent, and for the fourth consecutive game, four different players scored in double-digits.
Following the win on Sunday afternoon, the Vols have an entire week off ahead of this Sunday’s 3 p.m. ET tip. With it being finals week for the University, not having a midweek game allows the players to focus on their studies, and as a team, focus on themselves. It also allows the Vols to heal up.
“We need it,” Barnes stated. “What we will do is we have a routine we go through where we are going to spend a lot of time with the things we need to continue to work on to get better.
“We will practice twice here. We will treat it like it’s a game week, too. We will take off Thursday, practice here on Friday. Get ready to practice out there a little bit. Then we will play on Sunday.”
Though it’s unique to not have a midweek game, it’s just how the schedule worked out for Tennessee. But it could be a blessing in disguise, because there’s no such thing as preparing too much for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are shooting 54 percent from the field – the best in the country. At 98.4 points per game, the Zags rank No. 2 in scoring. Few’s team is assisting on 20.0 buckets per game, the fourth-best ratio in the nation.
“They are a terrific offensive team, and they are very sound defensively,” Barnes said. “They are not going to try to out-trick anybody. They do what they do and he knows what he (Few) believes in. He is going to expect his team to execute.”
With the best field goal percentage defense (.355) in the country, Tennessee will look to pick up just its fifth ever win over the top-ranked team in the country on Sunday.