INDIANAPOLIS — After dispatching Colorado State on Thursday, the Michigan men’s basketball team must quickly turn its attention to its next opponent: No. 3 seed Tennessee. The Volunteers are one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 13 of their last 14 games and capturing an SEC Tournament Championship last weekend.
Tennessee made quick work of No. 14 seed Longwood on Thursday, defeating the Lancers 88-56. The Volunteers boast one of strongest backcourts in the country, featuring Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi — who both shoot over 38% from deep.
The Wolverines last faced the Volunteers in the NCAA Tournament in 2014 when the teams met in the Sweet 16. This year, a trip to the sweet 16 is on the line with Michigan looking to advance to the second weekend for the fifth consecutive year, and Tennessee attempting to get back there after losing in the Round of 64 a year ago.
To learn more about this year’s iteration of the Volunteers and which team might have the advantage on Saturday afternoon, The Daily spoke to Josh Lane and Ethan Stone, who cover the team for The Daily Beacon, the University of Tennessee’s student paper.
Can you describe how Tennessee’s season has gone and if they’ve met expectations to this point?
Lane: I mean, obviously, SEC championship I think they probably would have exceeded expectations with that. That was 40 years in the making or something like that. I think 43 years it was, so it definitely exceeded expectations there. But if you look back in January, they started 2-3 in SEC play, got beat by 28 points against Kentucky at Rupp (Arena). And that was really the turning point for them. I think they won 15 of 17 after that point, so really from that point on it was a totally different team. Their offense was different. Santiago Vescovi, Kenny Chandler and all these guys, they really flipped it around after that game.
Stone: I would say really, there was a turning point. I’d feel like midway through the season, Tennessee had this thing towards them where they would go on scoring holes, that was really the definition of this team. In my opinion. They would go for five minutes, eight minutes without scoring and they could always play defense, defense has always been a strong suit just suffocating defense kinda like Jordan Josiah-James said in that press conference earlier. But around the Texas game, I’d say when Tennessee lost to Texas and Josiah was one of the guys that missed a 3-pointer, That’s when the team really just kind of flipped the switch. They started taking everything really seriously, they kind of got emboldened by their home wins, you know, they beat Auburn and they beat Kentucky, they’re beating all these really good teams like Arkansas, and they just seemed to flip the switch really. So I’d say their identity right now is just, they were sick of losing. That seems to be their thing. They’re sick of, I guess, just losing in games that they really shouldn’t be losing in. I mean, I’d say Tennessee’s only really lost one of them to Villanova earlier in the season that they really 100% deserved to lose. And I think that’s really what they think more. I think they think ‘Hey, we have been in every single one of these games but we want to be able to get over the hump and actually compete and be able to win these things.’
What makes Tennessee a dangerous Tournament Team?
Lane: Defense. That’s been so big for them all year. Even when the offense was going through scoring droughts, that was a thing keeping them in games. So obviously defense is big. But now that they started making shots, they’ve started making threes. The offense really stepped it up. I think as hot as they’ve been, I think that makes them dangerous. The defense has been there all year. It’s always elite. It seems like they’ve really flipped the page on offense especially in the last couple of weeks coming out of the SEC tournament. So I think the defense and now they’ve finally clicked.
Stone: Defense for sure, and I’ll kind of piggyback off that. Another thing that’s really important in March with defense is just guard play. And Tennessee has kind of had an elite backcourt the entire season. The front court, you lose Olivier Nkamhoua halfway through the season and you have John Fulkerson not exactly playing up to his full potential, at least in the opinion of some of the fans if you ask, and he’s kind of rounded out to his role. But really the most important thing I think heading into March is just how well Kennedy Chandler, how well Santiago Vescovi, how well Zakai Zeigler are playing right now. Throw in Josiah Jordan-James who’s really the glue guy for the team and you’ve got just a back court that can really fight with anyone in the country.
What role has Kennedy Chandler played in Tennessee’s success this season and what do you expect from him on Saturday?
Lane: I mean, he comes in as a five-star prospect and as a true point guard and that was something Tennessee had been lacking for a while. So even just having that consistency all year has been great. But then of course, he’s been one of the best in the country. His defense has been elite all year. Rick Barnes always mentions that Kentucky game is when his defense specifically flipped. I mean, he shoots well, he guards well, plays well. He does just about everything well really.
Stone: He said himself, Chandler did, earlier in the season that he thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was. He said Coach Barnes was really like, ‘Hey, this is what you need to be doing. This is XYZ’ and it was just so much more than Chandler thought it was going to be. You can tell as the season progressed, you can tell from game one to game 32, that he has really become the player that everyone thought he was going to be when he first got here. Now, he was good from the jump but I feel like now he’s really playing his best basketball and that’s just what Tennessee needs for him to be able to kind of be that player to lead them over whoever they’re going to play in the tournament, whoever they could play going forward.
Michigan mentioned Santiago Vescovi as a player they want to key in on. What makes him so good and such an offensive catalyst?
Lane: I think it’s just kind of what they mentioned in that press conference, he is so good at just running around and moving without the ball. I mean, he’s what, a 40% shooter or something like that from 3-pointers. He’s already made 100-plus on the season, so he can shoot at a high level. But the way that he moves around, he runs around the court, he’s in great physical condition and has good endurance. So he just runs around and presents a challenge for the defense. And then when he does get the ball, he shoots at a high level, so I think that’s been huge for them.
Stone: Just kind of going off what I said earlier about how Tennessee really struggled at the beginning of the season being able to find a shot, being able to buy a bucket at times. They have that dreadful game against Texas Tech where they just couldn’t really score. And Vescovi was a guy that just kept shooting the ball. He has never been scared about just taking the shot. I mean, there would be games where he’d shoot 17 shots and make two of them but the ball kept flying the entire time. He’s been hitting them all year, but now, especially, I feel like is when they’ve really started falling. Just the other day he became just the second person in Tennessee history to score 100 threes in a single season alongside Chris Lofton. He’s just really cementing himself as one of the better shooters in Tennessee history really.
With Michigan presenting a challenge front court battle with Hunter Dickinson and Moussa Diabate, how has Tennessee performed against other teams with dominant big men, like Kentucky, for example?
Lane: The first game against Kentucky, I don’t think they did a great job at all. Their starting frontcourt was awful. John Fulkerson, that was the last game he started, I don’t think he scored that game. Oscar Tshiebwe went off. But then when they played Kentucky in Rupp, Tshiebwe still had a double double but it was like under his season average so I think you could say they limited him there and it was again the same way in the SEC tournament. So I think they’ve done all right, all things considered. Ethan mentioned their frontcourt has not been great, especially without Olivier Nkamhoua. But I think they haven’t done terribly as far as limiting the bigs go.
Stone: They move to a small-ball lineup just out of necessity. John Fulker has kind of struggled, you lose Olivier Nkamhoua who’s the best frontcourt presence that Tennessee had and it just kind of necessitated a three-guard lineup. And, because of that, I feel like they’ve just been able to go out and play that small ball and it’s worked. Olivier Nkamhoua was still playing in the Arizona game but an Arizona team, the tallest team in the country, Tennessee was able to pretty much dominate them throughout. The score was closer at the end, but when it really came down to it, Tennessee was winning that game. Going back to the rematch against Kentucky, Tennessee really kind of shut down Tshiebwe in that game. Jonas Aidoo, who’s a freshman, he kind of shut down Kentucky in that game. Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith for Auburn, Tennessee did the same thing, they just shut them down. They played really well against front courts like this. I’ve found Tennessee has struggled the most against teams that have a back court that can match with what Zeigler and Chandler have been doing. I feel like Tennessee is kind of set up to play pretty well against these types of teams like Michigan.
What’s your prediction for the outcome of this game?
Lane: Michigan’s size is going to be a big part of it. It’s definitely going to give Tennessee a lot more trouble than Longwood did yesterday. But the way Tennessee is playing, I’d have a hard time seeing anybody beating them right now unless Tennessee really collapses and really hurts themselves. So I think it will be close, probably under 10 points, but I think Tennessee will probably win.
Stone: That’s a tough one because 11-seeds like this right now, like Michigan, they’re scary. Tennessee itself was in a position like this a couple years ago, I believe it was 2014, they were an 11 seed and they went to the Sweet 16. You get these teams that are emboldened by their first round victories and I think Michigan is going to play them well. I really do. I do think Tennessee is probably the hottest team in the country though right now. I think it’s a tall ask to ask anybody to go in there and compete with them and beat them. So I think Tennessee wins a close one. I think it’s going to be like 72-68, Tennessee.