The Horns (8-2) will be back in action before you know it. Texas travels to Knoxville to take on Tennessee (9-2) on Saturday morning at 11 AM (ESPN). Rick Barnes' club enters the game on a three game winning streak and is coming off their biggest home win of the season over Arkansas on Wednesday night. Bruce Pearl's club is currently riding a five game winning streak and is coming off arguably their biggest win of the season over #14 Oklahoma State on Monday night.
This Vols team has already been tested this year. After beating Middle Tennessee State handily, they took care of Fordham and UNC Wilmington in the first two rounds of the Preseason NIT to earn a trip to New York City. Before arriving at Madison Square Garden they also worked in another victory over Coppin State to start the season 4-0. The final two rounds of the tournament were not as kind to the Vols. Eventual champion Butler surprised everyone including Tennessee by 12 points in the semifinals. After a day off for Thanksgiving, Tennessee came out flat and was run out of the gym by North Carolina. The Vols played hard in the second half put were still beaten 101-87.
The Vols didn't stay down for long. They quickly started their current five game winning streak with a win at Louisiana-Lafayette to finish out their November schedule just a few days later. Tennessee then beat Murray State, #17 Memphis, Western Kentucky, and #14 Oklahoma State in Nashville to improve to 9-2.
The Vols look a little like Texas: a bunch of young, athletic freshman, an outstanding returning shooter at guard, and a couple of undersized post players. This year's freshman class was one of the nation's best and included three top 40 players: Duke Crews (6'7" 235), Wayne Chism (6'9" 230), and Ramar Smith (6'2" 200).
The outstanding guard is junior Chris Lofton (6'2" 197). With JJ Redick moving on to the NBA, Lofton might be the best shooter in college basketball. He is averaging 21 points per game and four made three pointers per game. Lofton shoots 53% from the floor and 49% from behind the arc. He has also been a huge part of their current winning streak scoring 31, 20, 34, 32, and 20 in the last five. There is almost no chance Texas will be able to totally shut down Lofton. Last year, he torched the Horns for 21 including five three pointers. Texas can only hope to limit his open looks and pray he has an off night shooting. I expect Justin Mason to get the first shot at shutting down Lofton, but it will take a team effort. We may also see the 3-2 zone to limit outside looks from the wings and force Tennessee to score from the inside and from the baselines.
The other Vol averaging in double figures is JaJuan Smith (6'2" 190) at 13.7 ppg. Smith is another dangerous scorer who can score from both beyond and inside the arc. He is very capable of scoring more than 20 on a given night. Starting at forward will be senior Dane Bradshaw (6'4" 200). He leads the team in assists and seems to come up big in close games like he did with his game winning tip in on Monday night. Expect freshman Crews and junior guard Jordan Howell (6'3" 188) to also start.
The Vols are deep. Nine regulars average over ten minutes per contest. Bruce Pearl substitutes liberally which allows Tennessee to play pressure defense for a full 40 minutes. The Vols force an astounding 22 turnovers per game. DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams will really be tested on Saturday morning. I expect Tennessee to do everything possible to get the ball out of Augustin's hands. DJ has been fantastic this year. If Tennessee allows him to keep the ball and run the offense, Texas will have a great shot. More than likely they will pressure Augustin endlessly and Abrams, Mason, and Durant will have to have good games handling the ball.
Tennessee is not very tall though. The Vols have just three players listed at over 6'5", but they have still been effective on the glass. For a team that starts three guards and another forward at just 6'4", they have a respectable rebounding margin of +2.6.
The Vols prefer to play fast and rely heavily on perimeter scoring and points off turnovers. Their up tempo style sometimes leads to sloppy basketball though. As a team they are averaging more turnovers than assists. They also turn the ball over about 17 times per game.
If Texas can control the basketball and prevent Lofton from getting too many good looks, we have a good shot. If Lofton gets hot early or we have trouble against their pressure defense, this one could get ugly fast.
At this point in the season Tennessee is playing very solid basketball. This will also be the first true road test for our young Longhorns. A win in Knoxville will really illustrate how far this young group has come in just two months. A loss would not be devastating though. Tennessee is a top notch SEC team and will definitely be in the NCAA tournament.
Will Texas exact revenge after last year's 95-78 beatdown in Austin? Will the Horns take advantage of a quieter road environment as most students will have already left for the holidays? Will Kevin Durant deliver an early Christmas present for Horns' fans? Or will Lofton go bonkers against our 2-3 zone, Tennessee's offensive sets lead to easy looks, and their pressure force us into uncharacteristic turnovers?
I like our chances but am not confident enough to predict a win. Tune in early Saturday morning. BON will be waiting with an open gameday thread.