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Tennessee is readying for its toughest take of the pre conference slate as the Vols face No. 9 Arizona Saturday night in Tucson. It’s the second straight year the two teams have met in a top 25 matchup as Tennessee overcame a second half push a to knock off the Wildcats a season ago.
Arizona is looking to even the home-and-home series at one a piece while understanding what time of game to expect when facing Rick Barnes’ Volunteers.
“It’s going to be a fist fight,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “That’s the way they play and there’s just no other way to describe it and if you think you’re going to go in and win this game by being dainty and cute than you’ve got another thing coming.”
Tennessee plays a defense first style of basketball that lends itself to physical games. But do they agree that facing them is like being in a fist fight?
“I would say so,” sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack said. “Going and practicing with this team is always going to be a battle because we just love to compete, we love to play hard. I think that is really what we hold our standard to. I think that is a good analogy there.”
“I do think our guys play hard,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I think they know they have to. I think they understand that we’ve talked about it a lot, what we want to do. The identity, being a defensive team.”
Tennessee’s defense has been stout this season and enters the matchup ranked first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Only Colorado and USC — fellow Pac 12 teams — have scored more than 50 points against the Vols this season.
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The emergence of freshman forward Tobe Awaka — who posted a game best plus/minus in 17 minutes against Maryland — gives the already physical Vols another element of physicality.
“Tobe brings us a level of physicality that we haven’t had since probably Grant (Williams) left in the terms of how he’s built and the way he throws things around,” Barnes said. “But with Olivier and Uros being older seniors, they’re both certainly physical. Jonas, his length bothers people in a different way where those guys can do it with more physicality. Jonas’ length is an issue for teams. Those four guys give us the kind of frontline that we need.”
Tennessee’s defense will face its greatest test of the season Saturday against Arizona and the nation’s top offense. The elite front court of Azoulas Tubelis (20.2 PPG) and Oumar Ballo (18.1 PPG) makes the Wildcats extremely difficult to guard and will test the Vols physicality to the max.
“There are nights where you run up against people that you can guard, but they still make some shots,” Barnes said. “Arizona is certainly capable of doing that.”
Tip-off from the McKale Center in Tucson is set for 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday. Kevin Fitzgerald and Jimmy Dykes are on the call for ESPN2.