Hoops Preview: #13 Tennessee vs. McNeese State

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The 13th-ranked Tennessee men’s basketball returns home Wednesday for the first of three straight home games, hosting McNeese State at Thompson-Boling Arena at 7:15 p.m.

Fans can catch Wednesday’s game on SEC Network and online or on any mobile device through WatchESPN. WatchESPN can be accessed through the ESPN App, or online at espn.com/watch. Tom Hart (play-by-play) and Dane Bradshaw (analyst) will have the call.
 
Fans can also listen live on their local Vol Network affiliate to hear Bob Kesling and Bert Bertelkamp describing the action.
 
Tennessee (5-1) is coming off a trip to the Bahamas in which it captured the Battle 4 Atlantis championship by winning three games in three days—taking down Butler, USC and No. 3 Kansas. Santiago Vescovi was named Tournament MVP for his standout showings over the course of the week, while Julian Phillips earned All-Tournament honors.
 
The Vols and McNeese State (2-5) have never met on the hardwood, and Tennessee has only faced a Southland Conference member two times in program history—last in 2018 against Texas A&M Corpus-Christi.
 
Wednesday’s game marks the first of a three-game homestand, which continues Sunday against Alcorn State at 6 p.m. inside Thompson-Boling Arena. The game will air on SEC Network+. Tickets remain available on AllVols.com.
 
TICKETS AND PARKING
Tickets and parking passes to all Tennessee Athletics events, including men’s basketball, are now digital and can be accessed through a mobile device to improve security and reduce the risk of ticket fraud as well as make the process more convenient for fans.
 
Fans will gain admission into Thompson-Boling Arena via a unique QR code which will be scanned directly from a mobile device. For quick and easy entry into Tennessee Athletics venues, fans are encouraged to download the Tennessee Athletics app from the App Store (iPhone) and Google Play (Android).
 
Your mobile device is the ticket on gameday. All valid digital tickets will display a moving barcode or a hold near reader (tap-and-go) icon. PLEASE NOTE: SCREENSHOTS OF TICKETS WILL NOT SCAN AT THE GATE AND WILL NOT ALLOW ENTRY!
 
Printed PDF tickets will no longer be issued or accepted for entry at any Tennessee Athletics venue.
 
The only authorized sources for tickets to Tennessee Athletics events are the Tennessee Athletics Ticket Office, AllVols.com, the venue box office where the athletic event is taking place and Ticketmaster.
 
A complete step-by-step guide on how to best access and use your digital tickets and parking passes, including diagrams and FAQ is available here.
 
TENNESSEE ATHLETICS APP
Fans are encouraged to download the Tennessee Athletics app, which now houses the Coca-Cola GBO Zone. Search “Tennessee Athletics” in the Apple or Google Play Store or use this link to download: utsports.com/app.
 
THE SERIES
• Tennessee has never previously faced McNeese State on the hardwood, and Wednesday’s clash mark’s only the third time in UT’s program history that the Vols will meet a current member of the Southland Conference.
• Tennessee is unbeaten against Southland opponents, defeating Southeastern Louisiana in 1985 and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 2018—both at Thompson-Boling Arena.
• In those victories over Southland teams, Tennessee has allowed an average of 54.5 points per game. This year’s Vols are holding foes to 55.3 points per game.
• A Vols victory Wednesday would extend UT’s home win streak to 20 games overall and to 17 games against non-conference foes (dating to a loss to Wisconsin on Dec. 28, 2019).
• Gonzaga All-American Drew Timme’s younger brother, Walker Timme, is a 6-7 freshman forward at McNeese. The Vols defeated Gonzaga and the elder Timme in a charity exhibition on Oct. 28.
 
SCOUTING REPORT
• Tennessee is entering a three-game homestand, its longest of the season.
• Reigning SEC Player of the Week Santiago Vescovi is 28 points shy of becoming the 54th Vol ever to reach the 1,000-point milestone.
• Preseason All-SEC selection Josiah-Jordan James sat out Tennessee’s last three games due to left knee soreness. There is no timetable on his return.
• Excluding James, who averages a team-best 13.7 ppg, four other Vols average 10 or more points. That includes sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler, who gives the Vols 10.0 points and 2.2 steals off the bench.
• The Volunteers own the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, allowing only 83.7 points per 100 possessions. For more, see “fierce defense” note below.
• With Zakai Zeigler as the primary defender, opponents this season are shooting 12-for-42 (.286). That equates to .691 points per possession.
• Tennessee has yet to trail at the half this season and is outscoring its opponents 32.1 ppg to 25.0 ppg (+7.1 ppg) in first-half action.
 
BATTLE 4 ATLANTIS CHAMPS
• Twice this calendar year, the Vols have won three games in three days to capture tournament titles. In March, Tennessee won the SEC Tournament in Tampa. And last week, the Big Orange earned the trophy at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
• In its victories over Butler, USC and No. 3 Kansas, Tennessee posted a +15.7 ppg scoring margin and a +9.0 rpg rebounding margin.
• Senior guard Santiago Vescovi won the Battle 4 Atlantis MVP award and was joined on the five-man All-Tournament Team by true freshman wing Julian Phillips, who scored a season-high 25 in the semifinal triumph over USC.
• Tennessee has won each of its last five games against AP top-10 opponents. That’s the longest such streak in the nation; in fact, no other program has an active streak longer than two.
 
ABOUT McNEESE STATE
• McNeese State (2-5) enters Wednesday’s game at Tennessee coming off a loss at UT Martin on Monday, 86-83.
• The Cowboys have faced two major conference opponents this season, falling at Tulane on Nov. 11, 75-58, and at Baylor on Nov. 23, 89-60.
• McNeese State is coached by John Aiken, who is in his second season at the helm of the program. Aiken was the Cowboys’ Associate Head Coach for three seasons prior to taking the head coaching reigns. Former head coach Heath Schroyer stepped down to focus fully on being the school’s athletic director.
• The Cowboys finished 11-22 (4-10 Southland) last season in Aiken’s first season as head coach. McNeese State has hit the 15-win mark just once in the past seven seasons and has averaged 11.3 wins per season over the last 10 seasons.
• McNeese State’s roster includes six Division I transfers, including leading scorer and rebounder Christian Shumate, who is in his second season as a Cowboy after transferring from Tulsa. Shumate, a preseason first-team All-Southland selection, is averaging 12.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
• Shumate’s 10.6 rebounds per game rank eighth in the nation amongst Division I players. His three double-doubles so far this season rank 12th in the nation.
• As a team, the Cowboys rank 33rd in the nation and lead the Southland with 13.3 offensive rebounds per game.
• McNeese State Associate AD for Communications and Digital Media Matthew Bonnette is the brother of LSU Associate AD for Communications Michael Bonnette. Matthew and Michael’s father, Louis Bonnette, retired after serving 46 years as McNeese State’s Sports Information Director and is a member of the CoSIDA Hall of Fame.
 
VOLUNTEERS RIDING 19-GAME HOME WIN STREAK
• Dating to their final home game of the 2020-21 campaign, the Vols are riding an active 19-game home win streak (tied for seventh-longest active streak in the country).
• Last season’s perfect record at home included five wins over top-15 teams, including three top-10 opponents—No. 14 Arkansas, No. 13 LSU, No. 6 Arizona, No. 4 Kentucky and No. 3 Auburn. Tennessee was one of only five major-conference programs to post a perfect record at home last season, joining Arizona, Auburn, Kentucky and Texas Tech.
• The Vols’ 2022-23 home slate features five games against 2022 NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Texas, Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas).
 
DESPITE LOSING SCHWARTZ, VOLS DEFENSE STILL FIERCE
• Over the last five seasons, with Michael Schwartz serving as the program’s “defensive coordinator,” Tennessee established an identity as one of the nation’s elite defensive programs.
• When Schwartz departed following last season to take the head coach job at East Carolina, Rick Barnes promoted Justin Gainey to associate head coach, and Gainey also assumed the defensive coordinator role.
• Six games into the 2022-23 campaign, the Vols achieved the best defensive efficiency rating in the history of analytics guru Ken Pomeroy’s website, KenPom.com (first published for the 2001-02 season), at 83.7. That topped the previous best, which was Texas Tech’s rating of 84.1 in 2018-19.
• In the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game triumph over No. 3 Kansas, the Vols held the Jayhawks to their lowest point total (50) since November of 2014. The Vols also limited Kansas to a .310 field-goal percentage (18 of 58).
• UT held Kansas’ duo of Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick, who entered the game averaging a combined 41.1 ppg—to just 21 points on 5-for-23 (.217) shooting.
• Tennessee’s scoring defense of 55.3 ppg ranks second in the SEC and 14th nationally.
• The Vols are averaging 34.0 deflections and 19.8 points off turnovers per game.
 
NOT STARTING? NO PROBLEM. ZEIGLER EXCELS IN BENCH ROLE
• Although he comes off the bench, sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler averages the second-most minutes among this year’s Vols. In fact, his 30.8 minutes per game are 12th-most among all SEC players.
• A legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Zeigler brings an invaluable element of fire and toughness when he enters the game. Rick Barnes will tell you that Zeigler has a knack for impacting the game outside of just scoring.
• His 3.5 assists per game lead the team and rank tied for 10th in the SEC.
• His 2.2 steals per game also rank second on the team and eighth among SEC players.
• During Tennessee’s three-game run to the Battle 4 Atlantis title, Zeigler led the Vols with 11 assists and nine steals while also adding 10.0 ppg and shooting .833 from the free-throw line (10 for 12).
 
PHILLIPS FINDING HIS RHYTHM, STEADILY GAINING CONFIDENCE
• Tennessee senior Josiah-Jordan James in November of 2018 became the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Vols under head coach Rick Barnes. That kickstarted an annual streak of McDonald’s All-American signings for Tennessee that was recently extended to four straight years with the addition of freshman Julian Phillips, who has started every game.
• Gaining confidence with each passing week, Phillips is giving the Vols 10.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. His 36 free-throw attempts lead the team, and he is making them at an .806 clip.
• A stat sure to please Barnes: Phillips owns a 1.67 assist/turnover ratio.
• Phillips also has drawn a team-high four charges.
• Phillips is one of seven five-star prospects to sign with the Vols during the Barnes era. Three of the seven—James, Phillips and forward Jonas Aidoo—are on this year’s roster.
 
JAMES’ BATTLING NAGGING KNEE
• Senior wing and preseason All-SEC selection Josiah-Jordan James sat out all three of Tennessee’s games at the Battle 4 Atlantis due to left knee soreness.
• James had previously missed multiple weeks of the preseason while working his way back to full speed following a procedure on that knee in the spring.
• It is unclear when James—who has played in three games and averaged 13.7 points and shot .526 from 3-point range (10 of 19)—will return to action.
 
AIDOO HAS ARRIVED
• Sophomore big man Jonas Aidoo enjoyed a breakout week at the Battle 4 Atlantis while helping fuel the Vols to the tournament championship.
• Aidoo averaged 24+ minutes off the bench in UT’s three wins and made his presence felt in the paint.
• He led the team in rebounds (7.0 rpg) and blocks (3.3 bpg) while also averaging 5.0 points and 2.3 steals.
• Aidoo came up clutch with three steals, two blocks and a game-high nine rebounds in the title-game win over Kansas.
 
MAJOR TESTS REMAINING ON VOLS’ NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE
• With a decisive win over Kansas already on Tennessee’s résumé, several more seed-line-shifting opportunities remain on the Vols’ non-conference schedule.
• Three teams in this week’s AP Top 25 await the Big Orange in non-conference play.
• The Vols play No. 22 Maryland (6-0) in New York City on Dec. 11. Tennessee then has a true road test at No. 4 Arizona (6-0) on Dec. 17.
• Finally, on Jan. 18, Tennessee hosts No. 2 Texas (5-0) as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
 
NEW LEAGUE CHALLENGE ON DECK
• ESPN in November announced the formation of an annual SEC/ACC Challenge, set to begin next season.
• That means this is the final year of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which dates to 2013-14.
• Tennessee under Rick Barnes (2015-present) has logged victories over ACC foes Georgia Tech (3x), NC State, Wake Forest (2x), Louisville and North Carolina.
• Barnes, born and raised in ACC country (Hickory, N.C.), coached at Clemson from 1994-98.

-UT Athletics

Vols G Kent Gilbert / Credit: UT Athletics

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