It has been a long week without basketball. The first semester is ending, and the end of the non-conference slate is in sight. The Gonzaga Bulldogs still have one big opponent left as they head to Nashville, Tennessee to take on the Tennessee Volunteers on Sunday.
The Zags are coming off of a blowout over the Washington Huskies and a hard-fought win over the Akron Zips last week. The latter win propelled the Zags to their first 10-0 start in school history. Any other wins at this point are just gravy.
Tennessee rebounded from their near upset of North Carolina with easy wins over Tennessee Tech and Lipscomb. The Vols haven’t beat any of their high-profile opponents so far, but they have come as close as one can get: losing to North Carolina by two, losing to Wisconsin by eight and losing to Oregon in overtime by four.
Meet the opponent
Tennessee Volunteers, 6-4, KenPom #83
The Volunteers are led by senior guard Robert Hubbs, who averages 15.9 points per game. He is joined by freshman guard Lamonte Turner, who is having a nice introduction to college ball with 10.9 points per game. Sophomore Shembari Phillips has also done a nice job of filling in at point guard this season, averaging 9.8 points per game.
Much like the Zags, the Vols are rather balanced. They have five players averaging nine points or more. Unfortunately, they’ve had a hard time in finding someone to drag them over the hump. Tennessee boasts one of the youngest lineups in all of college, and the inexperience has shown a bit in their close losses.
They do plenty of things right, however, and Tennessee will not be an easy out for Gonzaga. The Volunteer defense loves, loves, loves to force turnovers, and the Zags will have to play smart ball. Also, as a team, Tennessee is one of the better shooting teams in the nation from the charity stripe. The Zags cannot win a war of attrition on the foul front against this team, and will have to be mindful of playing smart defense.
What to watch out for
The Zags better shore up their rebounding, especially in this game.
We’ve detailed how the Gonzaga Bulldogs are a pretty bad defensive rebounding squad this season. There are plenty of reasons for why this is happening, but the fact of the matter remains the same: if this team hits the defensive boards in the NCAA Tournament like they have of late, it’s an early goodbye.
Luckily, if there were a team to gain some confidence from, it would be the Vols. Tennessee is even worse than Gonzaga at keeping opponents from grabbing the rebound. The Vols are also middle of the pack when it comes to their own offensive rebounds. The coaching staff hasn’t been too pleased with the rebounding effort from the Zags, and Sunday will provide a nice test to see if there is any improvement.
How to handle the almost-road environment.
Interestingly enough, the Zags haven’t had a single road game this non-conference slate. Granted, playing Florida in Orlando was definitely a road-like environment, but Gainesville to Orlando is still over 100 miles away. This is going to be a similar case for the Zags. Knoxville to Nashville is still a haul for Tennessee fans, who will be for two and a half hours to reach their destination, but this is going to be as “road” of a game as the Zags will face in their non-conference schedule.
This is extra important, because the difference between playing in the cozy confines of the Kennel versus playing in an arena stacked to the brim with a bunch of angry individuals who want nothing more than to see you spontaneously burst into flames, well, it is an entirely different environment. And it is one that these new look Zags haven’t had to face too much yet. This team, at times, struggles with communication for small bouts, and those small bouts become amplified when you can’t hear yourself on the court.
Sunday isn’t going to be that loud, of course, but it will be a great test nonetheless. Gonzaga will face plenty of ire in the WCC, but getting those “neutral” wins under the belt will help come March.