No. 18 Tennessee snapped its two-game losing streak on Tuesday night against Mississippi State, but it still did not look like the top 10 team of several weeks ago.
The Vols only put up 56 points and looked incapable in half-court sets for most of the game. They will have to play better if they want to knock off No. 15 Kansas on Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Jayhawks have won four of the five all-time meetings in the series, including a 74-68 win in last season’s Big 12/SEC Challenge. Those five games have been decided by an average of seven points.
“Obviously, it’s exciting that they’re coming in here,” Tennessee associate head coach Michael Schwartz said Thursday. “It was a heck of a game last year. We’re going to need to do our job in the paint and on the boards, because that’s where they really hurt us last year.”
Kansas is in a bit of a rut of its own. The Jayhawks had lost consecutive games to Oklahoma State, No. 2 Baylor and No. 24 Oklahoma prior to Thursday night’s 59-51 win over TCU. They only shot 41.1 percent from the floor in the win over the Horned Frogs, including a 23.5 percent mark from beyond the arc.
Junior guard Ochai Agbaji leads Kansas with 14.4 points per game. He has made 41.3 percent of his 104 attempts from the 3-point line this season, including 15 of his last 38. Agbaji and the Jayhawks are playing their third road game in four games.
Tennessee snapped out of its two-game losing skid with a 56-53 win over Mississippi State. Still, the Vols struggled on the offensive end just like they did in the losses to Florida and Missouri.
One constant has been top-notch play on the defensive end. Tennessee is No. 2 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metrics. The effort is led by senior wing Yves Pons, who is blocking nearly two shots per game.
“He’s seeing the whole floor; he’s not just seeing his man,” Schwartz said. “He’s not just seeing the shot block attempt. He’s seeing how he can help other guys off the ball, even in a non-statistical way. That’s a sign of someone who’s growing, maturity wise, on defense. He’s done that.”
Pons is also starting to find his rhythm on offense after a very slow start to the season. He has led the team in scoring in each of the last two games, putting up 20 against Missouri and 13 against Mississippi State.
Pons scored a team-high 24 points in last year’s loss to Kansas. It was the only game he led the team in scoring all season.
“He’s taken the shots that we want him to take,” Schwartz said. “He’s shot it with aggression. He’s driven the ball well. He’s finished around the basket and played above the rim, which Coach (Rick) Barnes and the staff have really challenged him to do—to use his athleticism on offense. He’s done so the past two games.”
Tennessee also received a spark when freshman guard Jaden Springer returned to the court for Tuesday’s win. He had missed the previous two games with an ankle injury. Springer has the best plus-minus on the team.
The combination of Springer and fellow freshman Keon Johnson are going to need to have a big night on Saturday. Kansas likes to play up-tempo and is a guard-heavy team. Johnson is averaging 8.9 points and came up with some clutch plays down the stretch on Tuesday.
“Keon went up to the free-throw line late game and went six-for-six from the line. Those kinds of moments are really big for our team, and it was good to see two freshmen do it,” Schwartz said. “And honestly as exciting as everything is that Jaden was on the floor last game because we know we have missed him.”
Tennessee will be hoping to avenge last season’s loss when Saturday night’s game tips off at 6:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.