EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was an October exhibition game but it felt anything like it in the Breslin Center on Sunday afternoon.
No. 9 Tennessee jumped out to an early lead and withheld every Michigan State run along the way to knock off the fourth-ranked Spartans 89-88.
Here’s three quick takeaways on the win.
Vols Start Fast, Can’t Sustain
It looked like there was a magnet inside Tennessee’s rim in the game’s opening minutes. On the road in front of a sold out Breslin Center, the Vols came out red hot.
Tennessee built a 17-1 lead off the jump while making three triples and missing just two shots over the stretch. The only was the Vols didn’t score was on turnovers which proved to be a problem throughout the game.
Even after building the early 16-point lead, Tennessee stayed red hot. The Vols made 11 of their first 13 shots in the and had 30 points through the game’s first 10 minutes.
After that kind of start, slowing down offensively was inevitable. After scoring 30 points in the first 10 minutes, the Vols totaled just 10 points in the next 10 minutes as Michigan State cut their lead to three points by the intermission.
Tennessee shot just four-of-13 to end the opening half and went the half’s final 4:35 without making a single field goal— an issue that’s plagued Tennessee in recent years. Missed free throws and turnovers also proved to be an issue for Tennessee to end the half.
Transfers Show Off Their Offensive Prowess
Much was made about the offense Tennessee’s transfer portal additions would give them this offseason and both USC Upstate transfer Jordan Gainey and Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht both gave them just that.
Both were crucial in Tennessee building its big early lead most notable Gainey who made his first four three-point attempts and led all scorers with 15 first half points.
Gainey continued his success in the first half and did so while running a ton of point guard for Tennessee with Zeigler and Vescovi out. The junior guard struggled with ball pressure but also had some nice passes. Gainey dished out six assists while turning it over six times. That along with his 20 points was a very impressive debut.
We knew Knecht could shoot the ball from the perimeter and he did that against the Spartans knocking down three triples. But it was the wing’s ability to finish at the basket that most stood out to me. He created his own shot at the hoop and also was very affective in transition including on this dunk of the year candidate.
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) October 29, 2023
Knecht was impressive with more than just his offense too. The transfer’s defense is his weakness but he played with great effort and was solid on that end of the court while grabbing seven rebounds to go along with his 28 points.
It was just one exhibition game, but it was a great debut for Tennessee’s two transfers.
What About The Big Men Scoring?
Tennessee’s transfer guard and wing provided big time offense but what about the Vols’ big men. Rick Barnes likes to play through a big man especially when shots aren’t falling. Inconsistent interior scoring has been an issue for Tennessee in recent years and could be again this season.
Sophomore Tobe Awaka is the most obvious candidate to step up there and we saw some of that from the talented underclassmen. Awaka totaled eight points on two-of-four shooting from the field. The sophomore was solid with his back to the basket and didn’t score much off offensive rebounds. Which, to me, is a good sign as we know that’s Awaka’s bread-and-butter.
Junior Jonas Aidoo is the other big man that will earn major minutes and he showed much of what we’ve seen in recent years. He doesn’t have a polished offensive game but cleaned up easy ones and hit a corner three— his jump shot is what gives his offense some nuance.
Aidoo finished with nine points on three-of-six shooting to go along with eight rebounds.
Tennessee’s freshman big men Cade Phillips and JP Estrella aren’t expected to bring much offense and they didn’t. Neither scored as Phillips played eight minutes and Estrella played four minutes.