North Carolina State (7-2) at Tennessee (6-3)
Wednesday, Dec. 18, 7:00 p.m. ET
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) . Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: NC State leads 5-3
Probable NC State Starters
G-Anthony Barber, 6-2, 170, SO, (12.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.9 apg)
G-Desmond Lee, 6-4, 200, JR (10.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.8 apg)
F-T.J. Warren, 6-8, 215, SO, (23.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.7 spg)
F-Lennard Freeman, 6-8, 245, FR, (4.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
C-Jordan Vandenberg, 7-1, 245, SR (8.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.8 bpg)
Key Reserves: Ralston Turner (6-5, 205; JR); Tyler Lewis (5-11; 170. SO); Kyle Washington (6-9, 225, FR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg, .400 3 FG%)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (19.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.2 apg)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (7.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .429 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (9.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .517 FG%)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (14.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.8 orpg)
Key Reserves: Robert Hubbs III (6-6, 205, FR); Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); A.J. Davis (6-9, 212, FR); Armani Moore (6-5, 215, SO)
The opening tip
In some aspects, Tennessee and NC State will take the floor on Wednesday night in Knoxville and see a reflection of each other in terms of where their programs stand at this point.
Both have had some early highs and lows in 2013, both have hung near the NCAA tournament bubble in recent years and both teams have a dynamic, NBA-quality scorer on their team.
They also both really need this win.
For the Wolpack, a team coming off a pair of NCAA tournament appearances, a 7-2 start is respectable, but its 82-72 overtime loss at home to North Carolina Central in late November put a damper on the non-conference portion of the schedule. NC State has bounced back, however, winning five straight, including a convincing 82-62 victory over Florida Gulf Coast and a road win at Detroit on Saturday.
They are led by forward T.J. Warren, a former five-star recruit who will have a chance to be a first round NBA draft pick when he decides to leave. The versatile 6-foot-8 sophomore paces the team with 23.3 points per game – nearly a third of the team’s scoring production – and is second on the team in rebounding with 6.8 boards per contest.
And like NC State, Tennessee isn’t necessarily in an enormous hole after a 6-3 start, but the Vols know they’ll only have so many opportunities for wins against quality opponents this year. Time, and a tough ACC schedule, will determine how quality of an opponent NC State ends up being by March, but this game will certainly carry more weight than the likes of The Citadel or Tennessee State.
UT must bounce back from a 71-60 loss at Wichita State on Saturday. The Vols carried a three-game winning streak into that contest and played the Shockers tough for approximately 35 minutes, but faded in the final minutes against the 2012-13 Final Four squad.
Jarnell Stokes must do a better job of staying out of foul trouble after missing significant minutes at Wichita. When the junior forward plays 30-plus minutes and gets a double-double, that’s generally when the Vols are at their best. The Vols will also need another big scoring night from guard Jordan McRae, who had a season-high 26 at Wichita. He may not match Warren’s scoring output, but if he can get 20-plus, that’ll bode well for UT’s chances.
That lost opportunity at Wichita leaves UT with just four non-conference games – two against major competition – left before the SEC grind. There’s really no such thing as a “must-win” situation in December. Still, consider this matchup and the Dec. 30 game against Virginia as very important for UT as the Vols are trying to turn the corner in Year 3 under Martin.
“I think we’ll be ready to go. You have to protect your home court. It’s four games, but the most important one is on Wednesday against NC State. We have to play hard from the start to finish of the game and secure both ends of the floor. We have to get production around the rim so we can knock those 3-point shots down.”
– Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin on finishing up the non-conference schedule
NC State coach Mark Gottfried is the former coach at Alabama. Tennessee went 5-9 against him while he coached the Tide. . Former Alabama guard Trevor Lacey is on the Wolfpack’s roster, but he is sitting out 2013-14 due to his offseason transfer. . UT is third in the nation in fewest turnovers committed at 9.1 per contest. The Vols are plus-4.5 in turnover margin at home. . Success at the free throw line continues to be a huge success indicator for the Vols. They are shooting just 54.9 percent from the line in their three losses and 73.7 percent in their six wins. Tennessee is currently riding a four-game home winning streak and a win would also give the Vols a 2-0 mark against the ACC this year after knocking off Wake Forest in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. . Martin is currently 1-4 all-time against current ACC squads.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga