#11 Tennessee (22-12, 11-7 SEC) vs. #6 UMass (24-8, 10-6 Atlantic 10)
Friday, March 21, 2:45 p.m ET
PNC Arena (19,772) . Raleigh, N.C.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads 3-0
Winner plays the winner of #3 Duke vs. #14 Mercer on Sunday in Raleigh
Probable UMass Starters
G-Chaz Williams, 5-9, 175, SR (15.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 7.0 apg)
G-Derrick Gordon, 6-3, 205, SO (9.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .479 FG%)
F-Raphiael Putney 6-9, 185, SR, (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, .455 FG%)
F-Sampson Carter, 6-8, 220, SR, (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, .413 FG%)
C-Cady Lalanne, 6-10, 253, JR (11.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.2 bpg)
Key Reserves:Trey Davis (6-0, 185, SO); Maxie Esho (6-8, 208, SR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.1 apg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (18.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .371 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .353 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, .529 FG%)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.2 orpg)
Key Reserves:Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); Derek Reese (6-8, 220, SO); Armani Moore (6-5, 215, SO)
The opening tip
The Minutemen of UMass are returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
The Vols, on the other hand, will be less than 48 hours removed from playing in, and winning, their ‘First Four’ game against Iowa on Wednesday night. That win gave UT the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region and the opportunity to face UMass in Raleigh on Friday afternoon.
It’ll be a quick turnaround for the Vols. They loaded up on a chartered plane early Thursday morning after finishing off an overtime win over the Hawkeyes. They arrived in Raleigh around 4 a.m. ET on Thursday and will get some rest, practice and be set to go Friday afternoon.
And while UMass is the higher seed, the early line favors the Vols by four points. But UMass earned its way to the Big Dance with a 24-8 record that includes quality wins over teams such as New Mexico, George Washington, Saint Joseph’s and Virginia Commonwealth.
The Minutemen feature one of the best point guards in the nation, Chaz Williams, who leads the team in scoring with over 15 points per game and dishes out an impress seven assists per game. They have size, experience and a balanced attack that features six players that average 9.0 points per game or higher.
But perhaps fortunately for the Vols, UMass doesn’t have a lot of depth. The Minutemen only play seven players regularly and that should help level the playing field against a UT team that only rotates eight consistently and will be playing on short rest.
The Vols got a chance to get the jitters out in Dayton. Iowa jumped on top of UT early, but Tennessee showed composure, cutting a 12-point deficit down to three at halftime before eventually getting the game to overtime and overwhelming the Hawkeyes 14-1 in OT.
Josh Richardson was key on Wednesday on both ends of the floor. It’ll be interesting to see if the Vols utilize their top defender on the short and speedy Williams or if they trust their own point guard, Antonio Barton, tohandle those duties.
Tennessee’s recipe for success remains relatively simple: Defend at a high level, get Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon touches inside and hav a few perimeter players get hot from the field. The first two have become almost second nature to the Vols over their current stretch of seven wins in eight games.
Finding a couple guards to have good nights at the same time has been tougher, however. Barton was off against Iowa, but Richardson and Jordan McRae, who led the team with 20 points, did enough to pick up the slack against the Hawkeyes. If all three are knocking down shots, and UT gets a little help from the bench, the Vols have a great chance to advance to the Round of 32.
But a bad shooting afternoon and some traces of leaky defense, like UT showed early in the game on Wednesday, could be enough for UMass to end the Vols’ season.
“I’m just so happy for those guys, the way they played, battled. We’ve been through a lot, and they’ve shown it. And they’ve done a tremendous job as a unit, bonding, competing, playing together and having fun. And it’s just fun to watch. I’m so proud of their growth as young men.”
– Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin after winning his first NCAA tournament game as a head coach on Wednesday
Powered by a career-high 24 points from Stokes, the Vols knocked off UMass in 2012 in the Puerto Rico Tipoff to capture third place in that tournament. . Tennessee is 1-1 all-time in the NCAA tournament against current members of the A-10. . The Vols are 4-7 in NCAA tournament games played in the state of North Carolina. . Tennessee’s 12-point comeback against Iowa was just its second come-from-behind victory of 10 or more points this season (USC Upstate). . The Minutemen haven’t played in the NCAA tournament since John Calipari, now the head coach at Tennessee’s rival, Kentucky, was running the program. . The Vols will wear their road orange uniforms on Friday.
UMass is a solid A-10 squad that can easily beat Tennessee if the Vols are sluggish. But a No. 6 seed seems a touch high for a team that only won two of its last five games down the stretch. Stopping Williams from taking over the game with his shooting and passing will be key for the Vols. And they need to get off to a better start and not have to dig themselves out of another hole.The Vols have an opportunity to turn playing in the opening round into a positive by carrying some momentum and confidence into Raleigh against a team that hasn’t played in a week. Duke is most likely looming for the Vols if they win this one, but they’ll worry about that after the celebration, if necessary. Tennessee has a better-than-average chance of moving on to the Round of 32.
Tennessee 70, UMass 62
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga