Under head coach Rick Barnes, Tennessee basketball has never shied away from scheduling challenging non-conference schedules. The Vols have played home-and-homes with North Carolina and other ACC schools and have frequently played top programs in neutral site games.
Here’s a list of programs Tennessee has scheduled in Barnes’ six seasons in Knoxville: North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova, West Virginia, Louisville, Purdue, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Gonzaga. But, of course, that’s only a snapshot.
But even that level of schedule falls short of what Vol basketball is facing this season. Thirteen non-conference games, seven against power six opponents and Memphis, six against teams in Joe Lunardi’s preseason NCAA Tournament field, four, or maybe five, against teams ranked in KenPom’s top 20.
All with a team that has eight newcomers and just a few months of playing basketball together. Why would Tennessee schedule such a challenging slate with so many new pieces and kinks to work out?
“Overall, the direction of the program to play a schedule like that— and we’re going to always play (a schedule like that) whether we’re young or experienced,” Tennessee associate head coach Mike Schwartz said. “From just a general perspective, we want to play the most challenging schedule we can and a national schedule. That’s always been coach Barnes’ philosophy.”
The Vols’ schedule begins simple enough, hosting UT-Martin and ETSU to Thompson-Boling Arena the first week of the season.
Then things get real; Tennessee travels to Uncasville, Connecticut for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. At 1 p.m. ET on a football Saturday— Tennessee hosts South Alabama— Barnes’ seventh team in Knoxville gets its first real test, and it’s a doozy. Fourth-ranked Villanova and one of college basketball’s most established programs will give this new-look team a dose of big-time college basketball.
On the other side of the four-team bracket is No. 7 Purdue and No. 19 North Carolina. Purdue is a serious Final Four contender, and while the Tar Heels are resetting under first-year coach Hubert Davis, they’re still, well, North Carolina.
How’s that for an early litmus test for a team looking to vastly improve its offense from a year ago?
The Hall of Fame Tip-Off shows how well Barnes and his staff have grown Tennessee basketball’s brand. The Hall of Fame invited Tennessee to play in a four-team tournament with two of the ten college basketball programs over the last decade and another top-20 program in that timespan.
“I think that’s probably fair to say,” Schwartz said of the increased opportunities for big-time matchups. “When you look at the Hall of Fame, we played Washington in Toronto, and the Gonzaga game in Phoenix was also through the Hall of Fame. We’ve had one-off neutral site games— where coach Barnes loves those. We do as a staff, the program does, the guys do, so I think they have been. I think it’s fair to say we’ve had more interest in one-off games or maybe a four-team classic where there’s two games in a high-profile city. Maybe high profile TV with three other strong programs. You want to see that.”
Tennessee returns from Connecticut and has two of its easiest games of the out-of-conference slate, hosting Tennessee Tech and Presbyterian in the final week of November.
Then Tennessee gets its first of two true road games in the out-of-conference slate, traveling to Colorado to face a Buffaloes team that made the NCAA Tournament last season and is No. 35 preseason in KenPom.
“The Colorado game was thrown together last minute last year, so now that puts us back at Colorado this year, and we’ll play them again next year in Nashville,” Schwartz, who does Tennessee’s non-conference scheduling, said.
Three days later, Tennessee gets a look at one of the most intriguing teams in the country — Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are coming off their best four-year stretch in program history and are starting over too.
Chris Beard bolted Lubbock for his alma mater and Big 12 rival Texas— more on them in a bit— leaving assistant coach Mark Adams to keep the train rolling forward.
Preseason predictions are all over the place with Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are No. 33 in the preseason AP Poll if you include “also received votes,” Lunardi projects them as a seven-seed, but Ken Pom has them No. 12— one spot ahead of Tennessee.
The game is in New York City as a part of the Jimmy V Classic, an event Tennessee was set to play in last season before a COVID-19 outbreak forced the Vols to back out.
“To be able to get back in that game this year and play in the Garden was really important for coach (Barnes) and for our players, so we took that on,” Schwartz said.
Tennessee returns to Knoxville from the two-game road trip with its last two small conference opponents of the season: UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 11 and USC-Upstate on Dec. 14.
Then comes the most anticipated game of the pre-conference slate. Barnes and Tennessee will meet old friend Penny Hardaway and Memphis at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Saturday, Dec. 18.
Entering Hardaway’s fourth season in Memphis, the Tigers are looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Following a solid finish to last season and the additions of five-stars Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, Memphis is No. 12 in the preseason AP Poll.
The neutral-site matchup should be an electric environment that highlights college basketball in the state of Tennessee.
Then comes an odd trap game. Tennessee hosts Arizona at Thompson-Boling Arena three days before Christmas. Arizona has been a strong program the last decade, but the Wildcats are restarting under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd.
Like Texas Tech, it’s hard to anticipate what Arizona will look like. Still, the Wildcats are the only power six non-conference opponent Tennessee plays that isn’t projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
The matchup is also the only premier out-of-conference matchup that Tennessee plays from the friendly confines of TBA. The Vols play two true road games and four neutral site matchups. Why so many games away from college campuses?
“Playing in a neutral site, you don’t know what the crowd’s going to be like, you don’t know what the venue’s like until you get there,” Schwartz said. “I also think there’s the part of what the players want and the experience of going to play in Madison Square Garden or going to play in the Toronto Raptors NBA arena. We were approached to go overseas and play. We were approached to go play in London. We talked about going overseas to Europe to play a one-off. Not sure what will happen with any of those, but the point being is, I think those experiences for the guys— and at the end of the day, it’s really for the players— so yes, there’s a strategic component to it, there is a preparation of what will happen at an SEC Tournament or a neutral NCAA site, hopefully, but really it’s just that overall experience to play a great program, in a great venue, neutral site, neat city. Those kinds of things are the experiences of why guys come to Tennessee.”
Following the Arizona game, Tennessee has a week off around Christmas before opening SEC play at defending champion Alabama.
And while Tennessee may have a young team that is being thrown in the fire by the grueling non-conference slate, they kind of need it. The SEC is stacked this season. Lunardi has seven teams in his preseason NCAA Tournament bracket and Ole Miss and Mississippi State could spend the season on the bubble.
If the Vols want to compete for an SEC regular season title— in what could be a log jam at the top— they must be prepared for big time competition and tight, physical games. Their non-conference slate gives them that needed competition.
“You hope that’s the benefit,” Schwartz said. “There’s no way of predicting. Obviously this league looks to be really strong. Our non conference schedule looks to be really strong. We’ve seen in the past where maybe the conference isn’t as strong and the non conference schedule looked to be really strong didn’t turn out to be that at the end. You put it together hoping for exactly what you mentioned. Getting ready for those types of games. You have many of them in the non conference and you hope when you step into late December and January, February, March that you feel prepared for that level of opponent. That is idealistically the goal. … To prepare you for those environments and those games come conference time.”
Even after SEC play begins, Tennessee will have perhaps its most challenging out of conference test.
Barnes returns to Austin, Texas to face his old school as part of the SEC/BIG 12 challenge. The battle of the UT’s is ESPN’s Saturday night primetime matchup.
Under first year head coach Chris Beard, the Longhorns have restocked through the transfer portal— including star point guard Marcus Carr— and are No. 5 in the preseason AP Poll.
“In the past I’ve never really wanted to do it because I just didn’t want to go back and be about me,” Barnes said on the return to Austin. “And 17 great years, I really loved it. ESPN has been asking for that to be quite honest with the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. And now, with them closing the arena—an arena we spent 17 years in and certainly had some great memories there—and talking to some of our former players who’ve asked that we come back and be a part of the last year of the building.”
That’s how one of the most challenging schedules in the country comes about. Returning games from last season’s COVID-19 chaos, in state rivalries and not backing down from primetime neutral site opportunities.
How will it play out for a mix of newcomers and veterans? Time will tell. However, Tennessee will be playing big time college basketball games throughout November and December. The sport’s spotlight will be on Barnes’ program frequently and the Vols will have plenty of opportunities for big time wins.