Tennessee Looking For Marquee Win Before Conference Play

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    Tennessee returns to Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time in eight days Wednesday night after its matchup with Memphis was canceled due to COVID-19. The Vols host perhaps their greatest test of the season to date as No. 6 Arizona comes to town.

    The media projected Arizona to be the worst of seven major programs the Vols played this season. Instead, the Wildcats have been simply fantastic and enter Wednesday night’s matchup 11-0 with a neutral site win over Michigan and a road win at Illinois.

    First-year head coach Tommy Lloyd was one of the reasons expectations in Tucson were tempered entering this season. However, the first-time head coach has his team playing as well as anyone in the country.

    Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes knows Lloyd well. The Wildcats’ coach was a longtime assistant at Gonzaga for Barnes’ friend Mark Few. When at Texas, Barnes’ program held a close door scrimmage with the Zags every year.

    “So getting to know Tommy, he certainly had a lot to do with the success at Gonzaga, as all assistants help you with what you’re doing,” Barnes said. “He was the coach-in-waiting there, but had this opportunity come along. Do they do some of the same things? They do, obviously. But he’s added his own touch to it, too. They’re doing a little more pressure stuff, I think defensively. Changing some things up on the defensive end more than maybe Gonzaga has done in the past. But there are some similarities to the way both teams play.”

    Arizona has been strong on both sides of the ball this season. The Wildcats rank 14th in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency on Ken Pom.

    The Wildcats have been fantastic at defending the rim this season. Arizona has the nation’s best two-point defense, ranks fourth nationally with an impressive 18% block rate and is excellent at keeping teams from getting to the free-throw line.

    Tennessee has struggled to get to the free-throw line all season and its inconsistent interior scoring makes its three-point shooting particularly important Wednesday. Luckily for the Vols, they’ve shot twice as well from three-point range at home as they have away from Thompson-Boling Arena.

    “One, I think Tommy (Lloyd) has done a really good job,” Barnes said. “Certainly inherited some players and he’s added some to the mix himself. The way they’re playing, they’re playing really good basketball. Front line is terrific. The blocks they do around there. I’ve really enjoyed watching them. What I’ve watched of them, they play hard. They’re not going to beat themselves. They mix their defenses. They know what they’re looking for on the offensive end. They have about an eight-man rotation that they believe in. And those eight guys, the rotational players, have played well. The guys coming off the bench have played well the last couple games. So they’re at a team that are very confident, and they should be, because of what they’ve done up to this point, there’s no reason for them not to be.”

    Arizona’s eight-man rotation all plays over 13 minutes per game and includes two centers, one forward and five guards.

    Sophomore guard Bennedict Mathurin is Arizona’s highest usage guard, averaging 17.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 30.8 minutes per game. Mathurin’s 38.5% shooting from three-point range is the best of any Wildcats rotation player.

    Inside, 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis and 7-foot-1 Christian Koloko lead the way. Tubelis averages 16.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while Koloko averages 13.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game.

    Tip-off at Thompson-Boling Arena is set for 7 p.m. ET. Tom Hart and Jimmy Dykes are on the call as ESPN2 will broadcast the game.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.