While campus may be quiet during the week following most students’ trips home, Knoxville’s buzz will return Sunday when the No. 20 Vols host No. 7 North Carolina in the second game of a home-and-home series.
Despite a close game between the two last year, the Tar Heels will see a different Vols squad in Thompson-Boling Arena. Rick Barnes’ 2017 squad plays with a talent and edge that lacked for much of last season, and the excitement surrounding the basketball program in Rocky Top is building.
Now, in come the defending national champions, who sit on a 9-1 record. The good news: the Tar Heels’ sole loss came in unimpressive fashion to Michigan State. Tennessee will look to employ the same type of ruthless, aggressive defense that the Spartans used against the Tar Heels to lead to an upset on Sunday.
In last season’s 73-71 loss in Chapel Hill, Tennessee gave itself a blueprint for success — run the Tar Heels off the 3-point line and force them to win inside. The Heels shot a dismal 11.8 percent from beyond the arc in last year’s matchup. Like most of Roy Williams’ teams, this season’s North Carolina team has players who can step out and spread the floor.
Guard Joel Berry II, who did not play against the Vols last year, is shooting 36.2 percent from beyond the arc and has no fear letting them fly. Tennessee will need a similar defensive display against the 3-point shot that it showed last year.
Berry’s partner in crime, Luke Maye, is averaging a double-double this season (19.9 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game) while also shooting 48.1 percent from deep. With Berry’s ability to pick his way through defenses, Maye is getting great looks — and he’s knocking them down.
Another beneficiary of Berry’s ball-handling prowess is Kenny Williams, who is making over 55 percent of his shots from deep. While the Vols want to force turnovers, they’ll need to play as disciplined as they have all season against a North Carolina offense that will use as much floor space as possible.
Tennessee has found success this season through a gritty, never-give-up attitude. The Vols play hard for 40 minutes, and it’s shown in big wins so far this season, including one over a ranked Purdue team with high national expectations. The Vols turned right around and battled now-No. 1 Villanova down to the wire before closing out the Battle 4 Atlantis with a victory over North Carolina State.
So far, so good for the Vols. Tennessee is building a resume worthy of March Madness, something Vol fans are itching to see once again. On the backs of players like Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner, the team has drawn comparisons to the last few Vol teams that made postseason runs in March.
The Vols may turn to Williams and Turner in key spots against the Tar Heels. Williams’ length and scoring prowess has paid big dividends, while Turner hasn’t shied away from shooting in big moments for the Tennessee offense.
Big on the boards
After a tough 2016 campaign on the glass, the Vols have shown a rebounding improvement in their desire to own the pain.
Despite that, North Carolina will still bring in a rebounding edge over the Vols, having averaged 44.8 rebounds a game to Tennessee’s 37.6 per game. In last year’s matchup, North Carolina out-rebounded the Vols 41-32, including owning a massive 22-7 edge in offensive boards.
The Vols will have to assert their dominance in the paint and fight for 40 minutes. In Tennessee’s overtime win against now-No. 17 Purdue, the Vols pulled in 50 rebounds. They may need to repeat that feat again on Sunday. Although the Tar Heels lost some size in the offseason, they’ve countered by becoming a faster team.
Not much about Sunday’s atmosphere in Thompson-Boling Arena will make viewers and attendees doubt the magnitude of the game. Sunday marks the first time since 2010 that the Vols will take their home court with a ranking next to their name.
In a sold out arena planning to “Checker TBA,” the atmosphere should be more than electric. That being said, Barnes needs to control the narrative to his team.
The Vols won’t get overlooked by teams this year. While Tennessee has proved it can bring the heat even with a target on its back (like scorching Villanova en route to a 12-point halftime lead), the Vols need more complete performances to match the intensity all around.
The Vols have done a great job this season of landing punches in the first half, only to let up in the second half and scrap for wins. Against the Heels, they will need to find a way to avoid the post-halftime lull and keep the energy up.
For Tennessee, Williams and Schofield — the Vols’ two leading scorers — need to impress. However, be on the lookout for James Daniel III to finally break out and help Tennessee’s scoring output. At Howard, he was a double-digit scorer. For the Vols, he is averaging just 6.4 points per game.
More than anything else, Daniel needs to put his confidence on display. His ability to spread the ball has been well-documented so far this season, but it’s time for him to take shots when he has a good chance to do so. Adding his scoring presence off the bench could be the key to scoring in bunches on Sunday.
On defense, shutting down Joel Berry II will be the key. While it might seem obvious, Tennessee didn’t have the experience of facing him last year. Michigan State gave teams a “how-to” in guarding Berry, as the Spartans limited him to just 7 points on 2-of-11 shooting. By shutting down the point guard, the Vols can limit the Tar Heels on offense wreak havoc on defense, one of this team’s calling cards.
By 6 p.m. Sunday evening, Tennessee fans will either be ecstatic or distraught — it’s hard to find an in-between area from Vol Nation. With that being said, this game is going to be one for the ages, and it could cement either team among college basketball’s elite this season.
The Vols will lead at halftime, using the energy from the raucous crowd and strong interior play to push out to an early lead. However, expect the Heels to fire back with strong shooting from beyond the arc, forcing the Vols to once again have to scrap their way to a close win in the second half. If the Vols can make their free throws and close chances around the rim, a win over a top-10 opponent is in sight.
Tennessee 74, North Carolina 70
Key Vols: Grant Williams, Lamonte Turner, James Daniel III
Key Heels: Joel Berry II, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams