One of the narratives around the Tennessee basketball team heading into the Sweet 16 is that the Vols are a “dirty” team.
Whether it was from the physicality of the Duke game or FAU head coach Dusty May saying that he would need to study Australian rugby in order to prepare for the Vols, the narrative has been fairly active on social media in the last few days.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes addressed that narrative during a press conference in Knoxville on Monday.
“You know, really, I don’t put any thought into it,” Barnes said. “I haven’t heard (it), not really. I think playing good, hard basketball, it’s not something nice to look at. I know our guys played hard. I know Duke played hard, too. Again, I’m on the Rules Committee and the referees did what they thought was right. And I thought they officiated the game the way they felt it went. But from our perspective, I didn’t see anything dirty from either team.”
During the Sweet 16 media day on Wednesday in Madison Square Garden, 7-foot-1 FAU sophomore center Vladislav Goldin referred to Tennessee as a team that “can play dirty sometimes” while speaking with WBIR Sports Director Karthik Venkataraman.
“They can play dirty sometimes is what I’ve seen,” Goldin said on Wednesday. “So we just have to stay focused and play through everything and don’t pay attention on any outside factors.”
Florida Atlantic center Vladislav Goldin on Tennessee: "They can play dirty sometimes from what I have seen." pic.twitter.com/gL3w2DIPto
— Karthik Venkataraman (@KarthikV_) March 22, 2023
As mentioned previously, FAU head coach joked about Australian rugby last weekend, something which he clarified on Wednesday was “in the most complimentary way possible.”
“So I didn’t see the Duke game, have no idea, I had just heard through Twitter there were some comments made,” May continued on to say about Tennessee’s physicality. “But I say that (the rugby comment) in the most complimentary way possible. Coach Barnes is a legend and it hasn’t changed. When I was at Florida they were the same way, and it was hard to make a pass, let alone score a basket against them.”
Still, though, Tennessee’s players have heard the “dirty team” rumblings and are looking past what people are saying online.
“Well, if playing hard is labeling us as rugby players, then I guess we’re the best rugby team out there,” injured point guard Zakai Zeigler said with a smile on Wednesday.
As several players spoke about on Media Day on Wednesday, Tennessee is just looking to play their game. Their game is physical, aggressive, and in your face. The Vols want to take their opponent to the mud and see how they react. Is it a physically demanding style of play? Absolutely. Is it dirty? That feels like a stretch.
“It’s very surprising,” Tennessee sophomore big man Jonas Aidoo said on Media Day about the narrative that is creeping up on the Vols. “I mean, we’ve played about 30 games in the year and now, when we get to the tournament, people are now saying we’re a dirty team. I’m not really sure where that’s coming from, but it is what it is.”
Four-seed Tennessee will take on nine-seed FAU in the Sweet 16 from Madison Square Garden at 9:00 p.m. ET on Thursday night.