The No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers head back to Knoxville to face the Mountaineers of West Virginia as part of the annual SEC/Big12 Challenge on Saturday.
The Vols (17-1, 6-0 SEC) are trying maintain their fresh No. 1 ranking, while West Virginia (9-10, 1-6 Big 12) is trying to salvage the rest of what appears to be a disappointing season.
Two former rivals get to square off once again.
Here’s a quick look at what to watch for heading into the unique match-up.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins is known for his defense. His teams are usually among the top in the country in forcing turnovers. This year, they are just about average. West Virginia ranks 198th in the country in creating turnovers with a mark of 13.1 per game.
However, Huggins’ relentless approach and methods has had some influence this season. The Mountaineers forced 24 turnovers in a December win against Pittsburgh. They have created 49 in the past three games, including 18 in an upset win over Kansas.
West Virginia will typically be in a 1-3-1 trapping zone. They have a history of pressing teams, even at full court. Either way, the goal is to put pressure on the ball and force shots. Tennessee likes to control the ball with precise passing and movement. The Vols take very good care of the ball. If Tennessee can move the ball inside-out, they will have open, controlled shots on the perimeter. They might have to get creative in order to get Grant Williams clean looks. The Mountaineers will try their best to deny Williams and trap him every chance they get.
This game might come down to guys like Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner hitting from distance.
Point Guard Play
Jordan Bone has secretly been one of the best point guards in the nation of late. The junior is playing at a high level, but is overlooked due to the performance of some of his constituents.
Bone has 37 assists and just six turnovers in conference play. That is good for an astounding 6-1 AST/TO ratio.
He has methodically ran the offense, choosing when to push tempo and when to run sets. If West Virginia presses, Bone’s attributes will play a big role. Pressing the Vols will probably create more turnovers, but it might not be worth the price of admission. Bone, along with the others like Admiral Schofield and Bowden, have the speed and handles to counter this type of move. Kyle Alexander could also be problematic. The Vols’ big man runs the court better than anyone his size.
Don’t expect much heavy pressure from West Virginia. This could play into Tennessee’s hands big time.
Return of AD
One factor that was missing in the Vols’ thriller at Vanderbilt was contribution from Schofield, the team’s second-leading scorer.
The senior has been in a shooting slump the past two games. His performance against Alabama wasn’t as devastating. Despite being 4-of-17 from the field, he was able to grab 11 rebounds and dish out four assists against Alabama.
The forward was barely effective versus Vanderbilt. Schofield had six points and four rebounds, but was unable to provide a single assist.
If his play this season is any indication, the past two performances are probably part of an overdue slump. Before the Vandy game, Schofield was shooting a blistering 50 percent (10/20) from 3-point range in January. His overall field goal percentage was 47.5 (29/61) in those five games.
Regardless of what type of shooting performance Schofield has against West Virginia, he will have continue to rebound aggressively, which has been an upgraded element since the Georgia game (8.6 RPG in SEC play).
Tennessee has struggled with that facet of the game lately. West Virginia is 18th in the country in the rebounding department. The Vols will need to be physical and guys like Schofield can be an equalizer.
Expect Schofield to try and find a groove early. West Virginia’s defense could provide open looks if he hangs outside the perimeter. If Admiral gets his groove back, the Vols will be in good shape.
Pace of Play
All of these components are predicated on one thing: pace of play.
West Virginia likes to be aggressive on both sides of the ball. This game could be a track meet, but Huggins might be too reluctant to challenge Tennessee’s athleticism. If the Vols have success early, West Virginia will be apt to draw fouls as well as create them.
The Mountaineers are 12th in the nation at getting to the free-throw line. Luckily for opponents, they shoot a horrid 68.7 percent from the charity stripe.
This is not your typical Huggins team, but as they showed last weekend, they can still be a threat. They are a deep team, who can play various rotations.
When this game was scheduled, fans on both ends probably never envisioned the circumstances that surround this game: The No. 1 Volunteers take on the reeling Mountaineers.
As strange as it may seem, the precedence for this game goes beyond this season. These are two storied programs with future Hall of Fame coaches that are looking forward to reuniting on the hardwood. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes and Huggins are all too familiar with one another from Big 12 competition.
This is their first meeting in four years and this time, Barnes is in a different shade of orange. Huggins got the best of Barnes during the last game, winning 71-64 in Morgantown.
It’s safe to say The Deacon hasn’t forgotten. It will be interesting to see how this rivalry is renewed. Barnes has a career record of 8-4 against West Virginia.