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Talking Tennessee with Rocky Top Talk

In case you missed it, Gonzaga plays a big game tomorrow.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M CC at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Zags murderous non-conference stretch continues with a game against the No. 7 Tennessee Volunteers on Sunday.

To get a bit more information, we spoke with Terry Lambert over at SB Nation’s Volunteers blog, Rocky Top Talk.

TSSF: Grant Williams is the reigning SEC Player of the Year. What makes him such a good player, and how do the Zags limit his offensive impact in the game, or can they?

TL: Grant is just so strong. He’s undersized — 6-7 may be generous for him — but he’s absolutely relentless. He’s able to fight through contact and finish at the rim from some pretty awkward angles. What makes him so great is how smart he is. (He did turn down Harvard to go to Tennessee, by the way.)

When teams try to double him, it just makes things worse. He destroyed Kansas by making the right plays when he got doubled. His only weakness is that he lives in foul trouble. It bit him a bunch last year and did again against Kansas as he fouled out with a minute left. That ultimately took Tennessee out of the game. Gonzaga would be wise to do everything they can to deny him the ball on the block, then go after him early and often on the other end.

TSSF: Junior guard Lamonte Turner is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. How does his absence affect the team going forward? Who steps in to fill his role?

TL: The Turner situation is a little odd. He came back for the NIT season tip-off tournament, but Barnes shut him down again after a couple of poor shooting performances. Barnes now says he won’t be back until he’s 100 percent, but didn’t really rule him out. Stay tuned there.

Assuming he is out, it’s a big blow for Tennessee. Turner doesn’t start, but he gets starters minutes. Whenever the Vols need a big shot, Turner is usually the guy that delivers. He sealed a win in Rupp Arena last year against Kentucky with a few seconds remaining. He actually hit a couple of shots back to back against Louisville this year to finish that game off too.

It hurts Tennessee because it takes away a key shooter, which they don’t have many of. An unproven guy in Jalen Johnson will step in and fill some of his minutes, but this really puts more strain on Jordan Bowden and Jordan Bone, who will have to really step up on the offensive end if he’s out.

TSSF: Tennessee almost pulled the upset against Kansas over Feast Week. What was going right in that game, and ultimately, how was Kansas able to steal one away as the minutes counted down?

TL: As I mentioned above, Grant Williams was going to work in that one. He finished with 18-8-6 as the offense ran through him for most of the day. Point guard Jordan Bone played one of his better games as a Vol, attacking the paint and finishing at the rim, which is something he’s struggled to do consistently. Outside of those two things, it honestly wasn’t a good night for Tennessee.

Admiral Schofield managed 22 points, but it took him 21 shots to get there. He went 2-8 from three point range, while Turner shot just 2-9. The offense disappeared for a large chunk of the first half, putting Tennessee in an early hole. Without giving their best effort, Tennessee still controlled the game throughout the second half. That was my positive takeaway. Kansas closed the gap late, then got Williams to foul out before overtime. Without Grant on the floor, the offense ran through Schofield. It just wasn’t quite good enough. It was a shame to see it end like that because it was truly such a great game. But as I said after that one, Tennessee still has to figure out who they are when Grant isn’t on the floor.

TSSF: The Vols have a great offense and defense. Gonzaga has a semi-good defense combined with the second-best offense. How does Tennessee slow down the Gonzaga offensive juggernaut?

TL: Tennessee has a couple of defensive stoppers, but I’m not sure they’ve got anything to contain Rui Hachimura. Their best bet is probably their best defender in 6-11 Kyle Alexander. He’s long and can really defend the rim well. A lot of people don’t realize that he was out last year in Loyola-Chicago’s upset win against Tennessee. That ultimately cost the Vols a chance to run through a regional bracket that ended up falling their way nicely.

Alexander averages two blocks per game. I think Grant has improved defensively this year, but Barnes put the challenge to him this week to get even better. Another guy I’d point out defensively is Yves Pons. There’s a lot of talent with this kid, but it’s still pretty raw. What he can be right now is a defensive nightmare on the wing. The 6-6 wing out of France can jump out of the gym and make things difficult around the paint.

Where things will get tricky for Barnes will be when he has to go to his bench. Reserve forward John Fulkerson is a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but Tennessee gets considerably worse defensively when he’s on the floor. Look for that advantage when No. 10 enters the game.

TSSF: This game looks like it’ll be pretty evenly matched. How do you see Tennessee pulling off the win. On the flip side, what does Gonzaga need to do for a win?

This game is really interesting to me because the rosters are so similar. Tennessee is usually one of the smaller teams on the floor, but that won’t be the case on Sunday. The Williams-Hachimura matchup should be spectacular.

I think Tennessee can win if they get A+ efforts from Grant, Admiral and Jordan Bone. Especially with Turner potentially being down, Jordan Bone is going to have to stay in control and limit his turnovers. If Admiral, Jordan Bowden and Bone can get a few shots to fall from the outside, Tennessee will be a tough out.

Gonzaga probably wins if they can match Williams’ physicality down low. If they can get the Tennessee offense to turn elsewhere, I like Gonzaga’s chances. We just haven’t seen Schofield be able to carry this team quite yet this year, like he did at times last season. That could absolutely change — I expect it to eventually — but it hasn’t quite yet.