Tennessee has bounced back nicely from its only loss of the season.
That likely does not bode well for McNeese when it visits the No. 13 Volunteers, who’ll aim for their fifth straight victory on Wednesday night in Knoxville, Tenn.
When Colorado knocked off the then-No. 11 Volunteers 78-66 in Nashville on Nov. 13, coach Rick Barnes’ squad needed to regroup, especially defensively. Fast forward more than two weeks later, and Tennessee has done that quite well, winning four in a row by an average margin of 19.5 points while allowing just 52.8 points per contest.
Tennessee (5-1) made a massive statement by knocking off Butler, Southern California and then-No. 3 Kansas to win the Battle 4 Atlantis championship last week. In their 64-50 win over the Jayhawks in the title contest, the Vols held Bill Self’s group to season lows for points and field-goal percentage (.321) and owned a decisive 45-27 edge on the boards.
“We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it,” Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler, who posted season highs of 14 points and four steals against Kansas, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Though Tennessee’s offense has been inconsistent, shooting 39.7 percent overall, its defense has been relatively stout. The Vols rank among the national leaders in defensive scoring (55.3 points allowed per game) and within the top 25 in effective defensive field-goal percentage (.420).
“We know we can’t control if we make shots or not,” Zeigler added. “But, our mentality was pretty much just to stop the man in front of us, then just stay solid on the defensive end because offense will come if you play solid defense.”
The Volunteers do have a solid offensive leader in senior guard Santiago Vescovi, who averages 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists. He scored 20 points against Kansas to claim tournament MVP honors.
Fellow senior Josiah-Jordan James averaged team highs of 13.7 points and 6.0 rebounds through Tennessee’s first three games, but he remains day-to-day with a knee issue that forced him to miss all three Atlantis contests.
It’s uncertain if James will be available against McNeese (2-5), which faces its second ranked opponent in three games. The Cowboys fell 89-60 at then-No. 7 Baylor last week but were much more competitive while shooting 50.8 percent during an 86-83 loss at UT Martin on Monday.
Trae English made five 3-pointers and finished with 29 points, while Christian Shumate added 17 with 11 rebounds on Monday. Shumate has been the most productive performer thus far for the Cowboys, averaging 12.9 points and 10.6 rebounds after putting up 12.2 and pulling down 6.7 boards per contest in 2021-22 after transferring from Tulsa.
“This offseason, (Shumate has) elevated to another level,” second-year coach John Aiken told the Cowboys’ official website. “His potential is off the charts.”
Since January 1981, McNeese is 0-31 against Top 25 opponents. Meanwhile, Tennessee has won 14 straight and 56 of its last 58 home games against unranked, non-conference foes.
–Field Level Media