Note: This is a long set up to the interview. Feel free to skip it if you want to get straight to the basketball.
The Set Up
This Tennessee game is tricky for me. My wife’s family is from Knoxville (and Oak Ridge) and love the Vols. My wife was spared from this fate by leaving the state for college and heading south to God’s country and Clemson University where she met a stunningly handsome and charming English major with long, flowing, curly locks (but that’s a different story altogether). After Clemson, she returned home to the University of Tennessee and graduated from Vet school.
In fact, a framed UT diploma is looming over me in my office as I write this post.
After Tennessee decided to start playing basketball again in overtime against Iowa and punched their ticket to the Sweet 16, I knew I had to interview my brother-in-law Brent. We had been texting back and forth during the game, and he had managed to hit every possible human emotion in a 25 minute time period.
I needed the scoop on the Vols, and if anyone is qualified to provide it, it’s Brent.
Brent is a true VFL (Vol For Life) and that’s not a title thrown around loosely in his hometown of Knoxville.
Certain boxes have to be checked.
Brent’s dad Bill has been a season ticket holder for Tennessee basketball for over 30 years, Brent claims he still clearly remembers holding his dads hand and walking up the ramp to Stokely Athletic Center (pre Thompson Boling Arena),
Brent has ridden the ups and downs of Tennessee fandom with an unwavering spirit that Purdue fans should appreciate. Being a VFL has shaved at least five years off the end of his life. The man is a walking encyclopedia of Volunteer knowledge, and is one of the few people that I consider my equal in general sports knowledge.
He knows his stuff.
Interviewing Brent also gives me the opportunity to come clean publicly about his basketball skills. We were on a family vacation at Folly Beach and decided to do a little body surfing with Hurricane Sandy churning off the coast. If this sounds like a bad idea, I can assure you, it was. My wife, who was both smarter and significantly less drunk, rode a few waves and decided that it was too dangerous.
Brent and I laughed at her and continued catching waves like the manly men we are.
Things were going O.K. until I caught a wave, looked down, and saw nothing but sand underneath me. The wave planted me face first into the sand like a lawn dart. Things went black for a second, and then faded back to a fuzzy shade of yellow. I managed to get up and stagger back to the beach through the crashing waves, missing a wide swath of skin on my forehead, bleeding profusely, and trying to get the world to come back into focus.
Brent saw me, yelled something crass about my manhood, and I watched as the next wave picked him up, bent him in half, feet over head, and plant him in the sand chest first. I thought I was going to have to go in after him, but he emerged from the surf holding his side. We both took the walk of of shame back to the beach house, bleeding and broken.
The only thing to do at that point was continue drinking, and we kept a steady pace up for the rest of the day to soothe our wounded bodies and pride.
At some point in the night, driven by booze and a possible concussion, I started running my mouth about basketball. Brent’s only 5’11 (ish) and I’m 6’3. I told him that he wouldn’t stand a chance against me one on one. I would back him into the post and make him quit. At one point my in-laws came out to check on us to ensure we weren’t actually fighting (I’m a friendly, yet animated and loud taking drunk). Mostly it was me talking too loud and making broad gesticulations and Brent sitting in his chair and occasional responding quietly (because he had 2 cracked ribs) that he wasn’t so sure about that.
A few months later, I drove up from College Station to Knoxville (for reasons other than our 1 on 1 showdown) and he beat my ass in a way that brought shame to my entire family. It was a domination and I still wake up in a cold sweat on some nights when it creeps into my dreams. I talk a lot of trash, possibly too much, but I will admit when I’ve been bested, and I need to use this space to publicly acknowledge that Brent is the superior baller.
When Tennessee brought in Rick Barnes after he was fired at Texas, some people in the college basketball world questioned the move. What has Barnes brought to Rocky Top that pushed the Vols to the top of the SEC?
The biggest reservation, as I recall, among Volunteer fans upon the hiring of Rick Barnes was his age.
“He has gotten old and lazy on the recruiting trail.”
“He lets his assistant coaches do all the recruiting.”
“He will never get another TJ Ford, much less a Kevin Durant” (there may never be another KD in college basketball, really?).
“We need a young upstart to give us the longevity to develop a proud tradition.”
This was, and is, flat out ageism. I have never heard anyone say such a thing about Jim Boeheim, Coach K, or Roy William.
Coach Barnes is 10, 8, and 4 years younger, respectively.
The biggest thing Coach Barnes brings to Tennessee is legitimacy. We have had our share of winning and well respected coaches, i.e. John Maur (obscure, but check the winning percentage and pedigree), Ray Mears (all time great), Wade Houston (not as much a winner as much as respected for his role in the history of the SEC), Kevin O’Neill (a winner and respected before he showed up in Knoxville, scored 20 points a game, and insulted the entire perceived ignorant fan base on his radio show for not liking his, “boring as shit, losing basketball”), Jerry Green (maybe not as much respected but a winner), and Bruce Pearl (ditto).
Coach Barnes brings with him a 2003 Final Four, 4 Big East Tournament Championships, 4 Big 12 Coach of the Year awards, and a 2009 John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award (who won his last national championship at the approximately the same age as Coach Wooden, Purdue may remember him). No other coach we have hired has had such a resume.
I am sorry, but there are only so many Billy Dovovans out there…
In spite of his critics, he has managed to win a regular season SEC championship and SEC coach of the year two years running. The reason? He flat out knows how to coach (Sorry Cuonzo). He takes an average player and makes him better. He take good player and makes him great. He takes a team and makes them better. Hell, he even takes a player that started playing basketball his Junior year of high school and turns him into a potential NBA player (Alexander).
In terms of scheme, what can Purdue fans expect to see out of the Vols on offense and defense?
Offense: Inside out basketball. We play best when the ball moves through Grant Williams. If Purdue takes him away, look for the curl at the elbow. We lead the SEC in assists, everyone has a chance to score if the ball moves. Watch out for the in-bounds play from the baseline...
Defense: In my opinion, we are an average defensive team, but that is not because we don’t play team defense. It’s because we don’t have good on-ball defenders and don’t defend outside the 3-point line due to this deficiency. If you can break UT down off the dribble, or ball screen, you will get shots. We do defend the rim well, so finish strong lest the ball be in the stands or headed the other way. Occasionally, we will run a 3-2 zone and a full court “token D” to mix it up, but we pretty much are a straight up man to man team.
This is almost the exact same Volunteer team that knocked off Purdue in overtime in 2017. Are there any major differences between the way that UT played and the way this team plays?
The major difference between this team and last year’s team is the lack of a shutdown defender on the perimeter. This is primarily due to a lack of height and/or speed.
I would say LeMonte Turner is our best perimeter defender at a generous 6’2” with no speed. Bone should be better on the ball with his quickness, but a lot is required of him on the offensive end. Pons and Bowden lose their man too frequently.
I have Grant Williams circled, starred, and underlined on the scouting report. What makes him such a dominant player?
Grant Williams should be the focus of every opposing team. I would circle him twice, but watch how you bring the double team. He sees the floor well and can burn you with a pass if he recognizes it. It seems as if he always makes the right pass.
He has an underrated skill set (if you can believe that). Maybe you have seen his quick drop step, baseline spin, or even his fade away, but the average fan doesn’t realize how good a handle he has or recognize that he is a dead-eye shooter. At points early in the year, with LeMonte hurt, he brought the ball down the court to spell Bone.
His shooting percentage is nearly 60% and not all of those are dunks. He consistently hits the jumper from the elbow and on occasion sinks a 3 point shot at the rate of 34%, not bad for the 4 spot.
What does it look like when Tennessee is playing well?
When UT is playing well the ball moves on offense. We play the passing lanes on defense, and we crash the boards (refer to the first half against Iowa).
Sounds like universally good basketball…
What does it look like when Tennessee is struggling?
We struggle when the offensive is stagnant, the ball doesn’t move, we don’t run hard off screens, don’t box out, and get beat off the dribble (refer to the second half against Iowa).
Sounds like universally bad basketball…
What about Purdue worries you in this match up?
What worries me about Purdue is mostly Tennessee.
No disrespect, but if UT is playing to their potential there is no way Purdue can win, they are that good.
They are a more explosive and athletic team. What worries me about Purdue is Big 10 basketball. It is the purist basketball in existence. There are two constants in winning basketball; defense and rebounding. I know this...I can still hear my father yelling, “Get a f’ing rebound!”
I consider these attributes purely effort based. These qualities are what make a Big 10 team tough to beat on any night. But, if you add to the equation good shooting (man, Carsen Edwards is en fuego) “Peanut butter and Jelly” are toast. Some teams have athletes and some have basketball players.
Tennessee will find out which ones they have tonight.
Where do you think Tennessee can attack Purdue?
Purdue is long, but slow on the interior. Look for Tennessee to take advantage of mismatches on the interior. They will run some isolation with Admiral and Williams, play off the double team, or go hard to the rim.
They will also try to run some curls with Bowden and Bone. We will push the pace and try to score in transition every chance we get. Bone, Turner, and Bowden are near unstoppable on the run out. We would love to play this way most games, but frankly we are not that good at controlling the pace.
What does Purdue need to do to win?
If Purdue wants to win they need to run ball screens. Tennessee is terrible at wedging and/or switching. Also, Edwards needs to break his man down and drive the ball deep to create open shots. Tennessee is bad at perimeter defense. Don’t pass up an open 3. Offensive rebounding should give Purdue the second chance opportunities they need to win.
What are your alcohol plans for Thursday night?
Editors Note: I assume there will be “break in case of emergency” whisky on hand as well.