It wasn’t your typical exhibition. Tennessee basketball wasn’t at home, and the Vols were facing an elite Division I program. However, that ended up working out in their favor, as they just gave fans on Rocky Top a ton of confidence over just how elite they could be given how impressive they were on the night.
UT, ranked No. 11 in both preseason polls, blew out the Gonzaga Bulldogs, ranked No. 2 in both polls, 99-80 in the Legends of Basketball Classic at Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas Friday without Josiah-Jordan James. With just under 11 minutes to go and up by one, the Vols had runs of 12-1 and 12-2 in six minutes.
Rick Barnes’ team will next officially open the season a week from Monday against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles. Mark Few’s team will officially open the year that same night against the North Florida Osprey. Here are three things we learned from Tennessee basketball’s victory.
1. Three-point shooting was elite.
Last year was the first time Rick Barnes really started to rely more on the three-point shot than the midrange. With the additions of Tyreke Key and Julian Phillips, he’s clearly trying to take that to another level. The Vols shot 13-of-28 from three on the night. Gonzaga shooting 7-of-24 was a huge key.
Key, a transfer who was surrounded by questions about his shoulder after shoulder surgery and missing all of last year, put all those questions to rest. He went 4-of-7 from three with 26 points. Santiago Vescovi was 3-of-7 with nine points. Phillips, a five-star wing, hit all three of his attempts and had 12 points. Zakai Zeigler was 2-of-6 with 13 points.
2. Post-game looks stronger than expected.
Speaking of health, Olivier Nkamhoua also put questions to rest. He came back from his season-ending injury last year and grabbed 11 points and 14 rebounds. That was part of Tennessee basketball outrebounded Gonzaga 40-35, who is supposed to be dominant in the paint.
Beyond Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic looks like he truly has turned a corner. Given his 7’1″ frame, that’s a dangerous thought. He had 13 points on the night and hit all six field goal attempts. Then came Jonas Aidoo off the bench, and he had nine points while hitting a three. His development could also be a huge deal.
3. Late-game defense and ball movement was vintage Rick Barnes.
In the first half, the defense struggled a lot. Gonzaga was shooting lights out and led 54-50 at halftime. However, the Vols tightened up in the second half and held them to 26 points. Most notably, in the final 13 minutes, they held them to 16 points, which is what would make Barnes proudest if you know him.
Another priority for Barnes is ball movement, and Tennessee basketball had 28 assists to just 11 turnovers. The star of this on both sides was Zeigler, who had eight assists to just one turnover and added three steals. Vescovi added seven assists, and even Plavsic had four.