KNOXVILLE — If there was ever a time to be lucky, the Tennessee men’s basketball team may have found the perfect moment when deciding to schedule a home matchup against Murray State this season instead of last season.
While the Vols had a team that was No.1 in the country for multiple weeks last year, the Racers made the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Oh, and they had the No.2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft in Ja Morant.
However, UT did not schedule the Racers last year and now the two very different teams take on each other tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“They return some experienced players that played for an NCAA Tournament team a year ago and are a year older,” coach Rick Barnes said on Monday. “I think they very much play the way that we like to play, inside-out. They have a really good post presence and are really solid defensively, and they’ve got experienced guys that have played in some big games.”
Coming off an exhibition game that saw them turn the ball over a combined 10 times, seniors Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden were challenged by Barnes before the Volunteers’ first game last Tuesday against UNC-Asheville.
Both players responded to the challenge, but not positively as they again turned the ball over a combined 10 times and left Barnes, despite a 78-63 win, frustrated after the game.
Being the only two seniors on the team, Bowden and Turner will have to improve their turnover rate and take care of the ball, especially in high pressure situations where they are expected to be the floor generals.
“With those guys, you know how much we think of them and how important they are to our team,” Barnes said. “And those two guys are going to be more aggressive. We expect them to be more aggressive. But what we expect them to do more, too, is value the basketball at a very high level.
“We gave up probably 14 to 16 points just off bad offense where we had no chance to defend. You turn the ball over and take bad shots, you never really get the chance to get the defense set the way you want to and most teams are going to take advantage of it.”
Freshman Davonte Gaines was a bright spot in the Vols first game, scoring nine points in his collegiate debut despite not practicing all offseason due to injury. Gaines capped off his performance with a slam dunk that really put the game out of reach last Tuesday.
Josiah-Jordan James looked to be the key freshmen for the UT team coming into the season, but Gaines, at just six-feet-seven-inches but with a seven-feet-two-inch wingspan, has made the freshman impact early on. Gaines finished with nine points and three rebounds.
The Volunteers need players like Gaines and James to step up and play big minutes, especially with a tough schedule upcoming.
“We’re all excited about him (Gaines) as a staff,” Harper said. “He’s got that little cast on his hand that still hampers him a little bit, but I don’t think I was surprised with the way he played because I watch him in practice. I do think he’s had days where he’s starting to really understand his role and what he needs to do. He’s got a terrific future.”
Gaines will have another opportunity to work his way into the rotation tonight against Murray State. While the Racers lost Morant from last year, they still bring in a squad with NCAA Tournament experience. Sophomore Tevin Brown leads the Racers this season, averaging 17 points-per-game. Brown started all 33 games in 2018-19 and averages a little under 12 points.
Tennessee’s Drew Pember is still nursing an ankle injury and has not practiced all week. He is doubtful for the game. Barnes also had no update on Uros Plavsic’s appeal for immediate eligibility to the NCAA.
UT and Murray State tip-off at 9 p.m. tonight. The game can be seen on the SEC Network.