Jordan Brown once was a five-star recruit that Tennessee coach Rick Barnes envisioned as a fixture on the Volunteers’ front line.
Now Barnes is hoping the former McDonald’s All-American doesn’t help engineer an upset when 13th-seeded Louisiana faces fourth-seeded Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region on Thursday at Orlando, Fla.
The 6-foot-11 Brown initially chose Nevada and transferred to Arizona one year later before playing the past two seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns (26-7). The first-team All-Sun Belt selection is averaging 19.4 points and 8.7 rebounds while guiding Louisiana to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.
And with Tennessee (23-10) struggling to a 5-7 mark down the stretch, the Brown-led Ragin’ Cajuns could be a trendy upset bracket selection.
“He’s a high-level player. Bob (Marlin) has done a terrific job with him, getting him and putting him in areas on the court where he can be really effective,” Barnes said, referring to the Louisiana coach’s work with Brown. “Really good footwork. Knows what he is doing when he gets the ball. He has got good shooters around him, good point guard play, a really good facilitator.”
The Volunteers are still trying to adjust to the loss of key passer and defensive pest Zakai Zeigler. The point guard tore the ACL in his left knee and Tennessee had mixed results at the position in three games since his season-ending injury.
Guard Josiah-Jordan James is aware it’s a work-in-progress.
“We have to rely on each other a whole lot more,” James said. “We don’t have one distinguished point guard. We’re trying to do it by committee, so we have to take that challenge on as a group with the guards. We have to share the ball like he did, and we have to do it as a collective.”
Zeigler was Tennessee’s second-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game, trailing sharpshooter Santiago Vescovi, who has made 83 3-pointers while contributing 12.9 points per game.
The recent slippage has created doubts from outsiders that the Volunteers can make a run. James disagrees with the chatter.
“Granted, we’ve had some tough losses but we don’t really listen to the outside noise,” James said. “We have all the fuel, all the motivation we need because we know we have to go down there and get the job done.”
Louisiana enters with a five-game winning streak and qualified for the Big Dance by beating South Alabama 71-66 in the Sun Belt title game.
Marlin knows playing the Vols rates as a challenge for his program, which is part of the NCAA field for the second time in his 13 seasons at the school.
“I’m very close with coach Barnes,” Marlin said. “They were having a fantastic year. We followed them all year and watched them. They were having a great year and then they hit a tough (stretch) and had a couple of bad injuries.”
Tennessee is 9-1 in the series and has won the past six meetings. Ironically, the schools have met twice previously in the NCAA Tournament (1982, 2000) with the Volunteers prevailing both times.
But Ragin’ Cajuns forward Terence Lewis II isn’t concerned with past history or school reputations.
“I really just think that anything is possible,” Lewis said. “Over the years, there have been a lot of upsets with the 13 seeds beating 4 seeds, or the 12 seeds beat the 5 seeds. It’s a new ball game. Everyone is 0-0. Anything is capable of happening.”
The winner will face either fifth-seeded Duke or 12th-seeded Oral Roberts in the second round on Saturday.
–Field Level Media