"Every team is different" but in Elite Eight, Zach Edey will present a similar challenge for Tennessee

Rick Barnes's Volunteers went right through Creighton's dominant defensive center Ryan Kalkbrenner to close out Friday night's Sweet 16 win and will need the same aggressive mindset against Purdue and Zach Edey on Sunday in the Elite Eight.

Tennessee forward Tobe Awaka (11) and guard Jahmai Mashack (15) celebrate a play against Creighton
Tennessee forward Tobe Awaka (11) and guard Jahmai Mashack (15) celebrate a play against Creighton / Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK
facebooktwitterreddit

Rick Barnes's Volunteers went right through Creighton's dominant defensive center Ryan Kalkbrenner to close out Friday night's Sweet 16 win and will need the same aggressive mindset against Purdue and Zach Edey on Sunday in the Elite Eight. 

After advancing past the Sweet 16 for the first time since getting to Tennessee in 2015, Rick Barnes wasn’t quite ready to turn the page to Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup with Purdue and reigning National Player of the Year Zach Edey, even with a quick turnaround. 

“I thought we were playing Friday, Sunday right? It’s already Saturday,” said Barnes well after midnight in the postgame press conference, “We’re really playing Saturday to Sunday.”

The good news for Barnes and his Volunteers, who downed Creighton 82-75 in Detroit, is that Purdue presents a lot of the same challenges with Edey that the Bluejays did with 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner. Despite his size and acclaim as only the third three-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, joining Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, the Vols were not intimidated. 

Tennessee went right after Kalkbrenner all night, blocking him multiple times and on the offensive end, finishing around the rim with relative ease. With just under two minutes remaining in the second half, leading 68-64, Zakai Zeigler cleared out the right side of the floor to attack Kalkbrenner in the pick-and-roll which resulted in a Tobe Awaka three-point play over Creighton’s center. 

“We worked really hard on drop coverage,” Barnes said of Creighton’s preferred defensive play style, “We knew we were going to get shots, and we had to decide, did we want to pull up behind and shoot the three? Did we want to get inside? All I ask them to do, if you're open behind a screen, we expected those two guys to shoot it, Zakai (Zeigler) and Dalton (Knecht).”

Zeigler and Knecht took the game plan to heart, combining to shoot 6-13 from three on a 45% night from beyond the arc for the Vols. However, Tennessee’s frontcourt had a different edict, one that paid off in that final moment. 

“If not, I said get inside the 15-foot area to engage them, and from there you've got to make the right decision, whether it's a floater or whatever it is, you've got to shoot it with confidence. Then Tobe got a couple where we said the post guy's got to get to the rim.”

That physicality and aggressiveness were refreshing in a Little Caesar’s Arena that saw Gonzaga routinely pull up for mid-range shots when Purdue’s seven-footer was patrolling the paint, a strategy that devolved into an 80-68 loss for the Zags.

In the early game, Edey didn’t commit a defensive foul until 3:24 remaining in the 2nd half, and Purdue outscored Gonzaga 42-26 in the paint. But if Tennessee’s Friday night performance was any indication, there won’t be that type of discrepancy with a spot in the Final Four on the line. 

“Every team is different, and it will be a different something, again, once we go back and start digging into it,” Rick Barnes said, reticent to discuss a rematch with Purdue. Matt Painter’s team got the best of his in the Maui Invitational, 71-67, back on November 21. 

At 7-foot-4 300 pounds, Edey is a massive roadblock between Detroit and Phoenix. Yet, on Friday night Barnes’s team proved that if they can’t go over him, they might just try to smash right through. The Vols, especially veterans like Zeigler, Knecht, and Josiah Jordan-James seem desperate to reach the first Final Four in school history, and Barnes’s first since he was at Texas in 2003, but the reality is, if shots aren’t falling, then that will to win won’t be enough.

Next. Tennessee all-time Sweet 16 history. Tennessee all-time Sweet 16 history. dark