It’s finally here. The most talked about non-conference basketball game of Tennessee’s 2019-20 season is finally upon us.
The No. 19 Vols (7-1) will host No. 13 Memphis (8-1) on Saturday in front of a sold out Thompson-Boling Arena crowd. The Tigers are looking to avenge last year’s 102-92 defeat in Memphis while Tennessee is looking to keep their home winning streak alive. A victory for the Vols would extend their winning streak inside TBA to 32 games. A win for Tennessee would also give Rick Barnes his 700th victory in his prestigious coaching career.
A victory for Memphis, however, would provide vindication for an offseason full of trash talk on both sides of the state.
Saturday’s game will mark the 27th all-time meeting between the Vols and Tigers. Tennessee holds a 15-11 edge in the series, and UT is 7-4 against Memphis in Knoxville. This weekend’s match-up will only be the second time in 27 meetings where both teams are ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll, however.
The last time that happened? Memphis was No. 1 and Tennessee was No. 2. The Vols won that contest in Memphis.
Memphis is led by second-year head coach Penny Hardaway. The former Tiger player led an underdog Memphis team last year to a 22-14 mark and an NIT Tournament appearance. The Tigers’ 22 wins last season were the most since going 24-10 in the 2013-14 season.
This season, Memphis is a drastically different team, loaded with young talent that’s off to the program’s best start since the 2010-11 season.
For Tennessee, this year’s team is also significantly different than the squad that won in Memphis last year. Gone are Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Kyle Alexander. This Vol team is led by a pair of senior guards, a breakout contributor in Yves Pons, and some young, budding role players.
The Vols are 3-0 all-time against Penny Hardaway, winning against him twice as a player and defeating him as a coach last season. But beating him a fourth time will prove very difficult.
Here are the biggest things to know about Saturday’s Tennessee vs. Memphis game that tips off at 3:00 PM Eastern on ESPN.
Down Two Stars
Memphis is loaded with young talent, but they’ll be without two of their top players on Saturday when they take on the Vols.
James Wiseman, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 class, and Lester Quinones will both be on the bench for Saturday’s contest. Wiseman is in the middle of a 12-game suspension stemming from improper benefits he received from Penny Hardaway to move to Memphis before Hardaway was the Tigers’ head coach. Quinones, meanwhile, is dealing with an injury and has missed the last three games.
In three games for Memphis, Wiseman was averaging 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds. Quinones has averaged 10.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and three assists per game in six games.
Without those two over the last three games, Memphis has struggled to put up the same type of offensive numbers they were to start the season.
In the Tigers’ first 6 games of the year, they were averaging 86.7 points while shooting 49.6 percent overall. In the last three games, Memphis is averaging 73 points a game while only making 41.6 percent of their shots. The Tigers have been shooting better from three, though, as they’ve made 43.5 percent of their 46 three-pointers in that span.
Without Wiseman and Quinones, the Tigers will rely on Precious Achiuwa (13.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG), DJ Jeffries (12.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG), Boogie Ellis (9.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG), Alex Lomax (9.1 PPG, 4.6 APG), and Tyler Harris (9.0 PPG) to lead the way.
If there’s one thing Tennessee fans should expect from Saturday’s match-up, it’s lots of defense.
Both the Vols and Tigers are two of the better defensive teams in the early college basketball season. Tennessee is giving up a minuscule 55.9 points per game — which ranks 8th nationally — while holding opponents to a 36.5 percent shooting percentage — which ranks 13th nationally.
Memphis is no defensive slouch, either. They’re holding opponents to 64.8 points a game, and teams are only shooting 36.2 percent against them — good for 11th nationally.
Tennessee averages six blocks per game and are forcing 13.8 turnovers a game. The Tigers are averaging 6.8 blocks a contest and are forcing 17.8 turnovers a game against their opponents.
According to the stats measured by Ken Pomery, Tennessee has the 14th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, while Memphis ranks 41st in that regard. Over on Haslametrics.com, the Vols and Tigers are neck-and-neck in defensive efficiency, with the Vols placing 16th and Memphis placing 17th.
Memphis has held six of their nine opponents this season under 64 points. Tennessee has held seven of their eight opponents under the 64-point threshold, and no team has eclipsed the 70-point mark against the Vols this season.
Pass it Around
While both teams have had their fair share of issues with turnovers, both teams also do a good job of assisting on buckets on offense.
Tennessee is averaging 13.9 turnovers a game, and Memphis is giving the ball away 15 times a game. But both teams are also dishing out assisted baskets at a high rate, too.
The Vols have assisted on 126 of their 197 made field goals this season, which means 63.96 percent of UT’s made buckets have come off assists. That number is actually better than last year’s team, which was known for being a proficient passing squad. Last year’s Tennessee team had 59.68 percent of their made baskets come from assists.
Memphis, meanwhile, is assisting on 54.09 percent of their made field goals this season, and they’re averaging 15.4 assists per game as a team.
While Tennessee has a more veteran squad overall than Memphis, the Vols will still be relying on freshmen to play big roles on Saturday. And the Tigers, obviously, will have plenty of first-year players they’ll be relying upon for the game.
Tennessee’s top four scorers this season are all juniors or seniors, but the Vols start one freshman and depend on two others are their main bench players.
Josiah-Jordan James has started all eight of Tennessee’s games this season and is averaging 6.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists a game while shooting 85.7 percent from the free throw line. James is playing 29 minutes a game, which is the fourth-most on the team.
The Vols’ two other freshmen who play a decent amount — Olivier Nkamhoua and Davonte Gaines — will likely see crucial minutes on Saturday, too. Nkamhoua has played in every game and is averaging 16.1 minutes a game, and he’s productive in his minutes, averaging 5.8 points and 4.9 rebounds while hitting on 51.4 percent of his shots. He has six blocks already, and he’s averaging a block every 21.5 minutes of action. Gaines, meanwhile, is averaging 3.7 points and 2.1 rebounds in 11 minutes a game. He’s played in all but one of UT’s eight games this season.
Memphis only has one player on their roster who isn’t a freshman or sophomore who plays any sort of role on the team. Senior forward Isaiah Maurice averages 3.3 points and 3.1 rebounds in 10.5 minutes a game, and he’s made four starts in eight games.
Otherwise, all of the Tigers’ contributors are freshmen or sophomores.
Precious Achiuwa, DJ Jeffries, and Boogie Ellis are the team’s leading scorers with Wiseman and Quinones out, and all three are freshmen. Bench players Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris are sophomores, and Damion Baugh — a starter for Memphis — is also a freshman.
All in all, 70.4 percent of the Tigers’ points this season have been scored by freshmen.
Fast or Slow?
Aside from the youth discrepancy, the biggest difference between Tennessee and Memphis this season is the pace at which they play.
The Tigers love to fly up and down the court and put up a lot of shots. According to KenPom’s adjusted tempo ratings, Memphis has the 10th-fasted tempo in college basketball so far this season. According to that metric, Memphis is averaging 76 possessions a game. On Haslemetrics.com, Memphis ranks 24th in tempo with 75.57 possessions a contest. The Tigers are averaging 60.7 field goal attempts a game, and when you throw in their average of 27.2 free throw attempts a game, that’s nearly 88 opportunities to score a game for Memphis.
Tennessee, on the other hand, has played at one of the slowest paces in college basketball so far this season.
On KenPom, the Vols’ adjusted tempo ranks 303rd out of 353 teams in Division I. Tennessee is averaging just 66.1 possessions a game by that metric. The Vols’ pace ranks 288th on Haslemetrics.com, with UT averaging 67.96 possessions a game by those measurements.
While Memphis is averaging 60.7 field goal attempts and almost 88 chances to score a game, Tennessee is averaging 54.6 field goals per contest and just 76.5 overall scoring opportunities a game.
If the Tigers can up the tempo and get UT out of their comfort zone, that could spell disaster for a turnover-prone Tennessee squad. But if the Vols can control the clock and limit Memphis’ opportunities on offense, then that should play right into UT’s hands.