No. 7 Tennessee begins conference play with a road trip to Missouri to take on former UT head coach Cuonzo Martin and his 12th-ranked basketball team.
The Vols (6-0) enter Wednesday night’s matchup in Columbia having won all six of their non-conference games to begin the season. There are still important questions looming over the team despite an undefeated start, as they’ve yet to play a road game this season.
The program was forced to shutdown for two weeks at the beginning of the season due to COVID-19. It cancelled several key games that would have prepared Tennessee better for SEC play. The shutdown cancelled a neutral site game against No. 1 Gonzaga, as well as a trip to South Bend, Indiana to take on Notre Dame. Now, the Vols are forced to play their first road game of the season in their very first conference game.
“It’s something I don’t think is ideal, which is why it was hard when we lost the game at Notre Dame and those neutral site games,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes told the media this week. “It’s an unusual year as we all know. I’m sure it’s happened to some other teams.
“It’s not the ideal thing we would have liked to had with the way our preseason went, but with that said, it is here and we have to be ready to go play against a very good Missouri basketball team.”
While it may not be ideal for Tennessee to play its first road game of the year in its first conference game, if there’s a team that can handle it, it’s the Vols themselves. UT has plenty of experience sprinkled throughout its roster with several players having played in several road games throughout their careers.
“There’s no question that the teams that are older and more experienced will not be hurt nearly as much as a younger group would be, because of the stoppages,” Barnes said. “The older guys know what you want and it doesn’t take as long to get back into it. The younger guys still don’t know what you want and it takes them a whole lot longer to get back into it.”
Not only is Tennessee playing in its first road game against Missouri, but the Vols also don’t have a lot of games under their belt as conference play arrives. UT played in 13 games last season before its first conference game arrived in January. Eight of those 13 games were played by the end of November.
The good news for the Vols is that not many teams have played a lot of games to this point in the season. Like Tennessee, Missouri has also only played six games. The Tigers do have the benefit, however, of having played one true road game and one neutral site game.
“It’s not a normal year, so no one has been able to play their full allotment of games,” Barnes said. “Even with that said, no one this year has been allowed to play the number of non-league games that we’ve played in the past, so I’m not sure anybody could think that they’re where they want to be or where they should be, just because we haven’t played as many games and don’t have as much variety of teams that you’ve played against or you can seen in a normal non-league schedule.
“Whether we are or aren’t (ready), we better be ready because we’re getting ready to play games that anybody on our schedule any given night could beat us, and we know that. So we better understand the importance of getting better right now.”
Tennessee and Missouri will tip from Mizzou Arena at 9 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. The Vols will then return to Knoxville for two consecutive home games against Alabama and Arkansas.