From the intensity on the court to the atmosphere inside the Breslin Center, it was at times hard to believe No. 9 Tennessee’s 89-88 victory over No. 4 Michigan State was an October exhibition game.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo felt the same way on the sidelines Sunday afternoon as the Vols and Spartans went back in forth in an effort to raise money for the Hawai’i Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund.
“That felt like March. Are you kidding me? I asked Rick are we stupid or what? We don’t need this in October,” Izzo joked postgame. “I got people sitting next to me and I said I’ve got five more months of this?”
Izzo knew Tennessee was good entering the matchup and was very complimentary of his friend Rick Barnes’ team entering the matchup. He left the thriller even more impressed.
“That team was picked to win the SEC and you can see why,” Izzo said.
The 29th-year Michigan State head coach went one step further after the game putting a little pressure on his old buddy.
“I think since he is a good friend of mine, let’s put pressure on him: That is a Final Four team,” Izzo said. “I really believe that. I really do.”
Izzo knows plenty about making the Final Four. The veteran coach has taken the Spartans to the Final Four eight times including the 2000 National Championship. Moreover, Barnes lone trip to the Final Four (2003 at Texas) came after the Longhorns knocked off Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
Why is Izzo so high on Tennessee? There’s a myriad of reasons but chief amongst them is the Vols’ versatility.
“You have to be good. You have to be lucky. You have to be all those things,” Izzo said. “Tennessee is a team that is going to beat a lot of people. They have a team that has a legitimate shot because they have enough depth and they have enough different (lineups). They put Josiah at the three some and went really big. They can go really big. They can go small and put him at the four. I think when you can do that it is always healthy in the tournament when you run into different styles and different teams.”
Tennessee was without its two Preseason All-SEC guards against Michigan State with Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler both inactive for the exhibition game. But the Vols got huge offensive outputs from both of their incoming transfers: Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey.
Knecht totaled 28 points and Gainey added 20 while various other Vols provided balanced scoring efforts. Tennessee shot 11-of-21 from three-point range with the transfers combining for seven made triples.
“Dilione, he hit a three. Josiah, you know I recruited Josiah and his dad played here,” Izzo said. “He probably hit a three just to stick it to me. I was really happy for him. Great kid. Mashack, he hit a three. They were very efficient, too. They didn’t take bad ones. … That is good. They are well-coached.”
Tennessee returns to the court in its second exhibition game on Tuesday night against Lenoir-Rhyne. The Vols open up the regular season on Monday, Nov. 6 against Tennessee Tech.