Nation’s No. 1 offense awaits the Vols out in Arizona

Arizona Athletics photo by Mike Christy / Arizona redshirt junior center Oumar Ballo, a 7-foot, 260-pounder from Mali in western Africa, is averaging 18.1 points and making 74.7% of his field-goal attempts entering Saturday night’s game against visiting Tennessee.

Tennessee's top-10 basketball showdown Saturday night at Arizona is the definition of a tall order for the Volunteers.

The first true road game of the season will be challenging enough for the Vols, who must slow Arizona's inside duo of 6-foot-11, 245-pound junior forward Azuolas Tubelis and 7-foot, 260-pound redshirt junior center Oumar Ballo. Tubelis averages 20.2 points and 8.6 rebounds and shoots 60.6% from the floor, while Ballo averages 18.1 and 9.4 and is making 74.7% of his attempts.

"It's going to be hard, because they really do a great job of putting the ball inside," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes told reporters Thursday afternoon before the team flew out to Tucson. "They are a heavy inside-out team and have shooters who surround that, and they do as good a job as anybody from the time they get the ball of looking at the basket.

"They've got post guys who are running to get it early, and they do a great job of throwing it up and getting to the rim."

The pairing of the No. 6 Vols (9-1) and the No. 9 Wildcats (9-1) will be one for the night owls with its 10:30 Eastern tipoff time on ESPN2. Tennessee already has defeated No. 3 Kansas and No. 13 Maryland this season and will try to make program history with a third such conquest before Christmas.

Tubelis, who is from Lithuania in eastern Europe, and Ballo, who is from Mali in western Africa, combined for eight points in 27 minutes last December when the Wildcats traveled to Knoxville and lost 77-73. The Vols built a 16-2 lead and never trailed, holding Arizona off behind a 24-point, 10-rebound performance by former 6-9 forward John Fulkerson.

Tennessee will seek to combat Arizona's powerful pair with 7-1 senior Uros Plavsic, 6-9 senior Olivier Nkamhoua, 6-11 sophomore Jonas Aidoo, and 6-8 freshmen Julian Phillips and Tobe Awaka. Phillips leads the Vols with 11.6 points a game and ranks third nationally among freshmen with 2.8 offensive rebounds per contest, while Awaka is coming off Sunday's breakout against Maryland, when he collected eight points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes.

"Tobe brings a physicality we haven't had since Grant (Williams) left," Barnes said. "He's put himself in a position where we can count on him and count on him early. This is going to be such a big game for our front line, because they are big and they can run."

Arizona leads the nation in scoring offense with 92.0 points per game and in field-goal percentage with 54.7% accuracy. The Vols, meanwhile, are third in the country in scoring defense, allowing 51.4 points per contest, and second in field-goal defense at 32.7%.

"They have a very fast offensive team, so we're going to have to limit their transition offense," Vols sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack said. "It's going to be tough, and they're a really good team, but we treat every team the same and have to come in with the same mindset every game."

Mashack's older brother, Kwesi, played football at Arizona as a cornerback from 2014-17.

Tennessee has held seven of its first 10 opponents to 50 points or fewer this season, and the Vols nearly notched an eighth occasion against the Terrapins. Arizona second-year coach Tommy Lloyd has described this game as a "fist fight," adding, "If you think you're going to go in and win this game by being dainty and cute, you've got another thing coming."

"Our guys play hard, and I think they know they have to," Barnes said. "They understand the identity of being a defensive team, and hopefully we can get our offense going the way I think we're capable of doing it. We've got a group of guys who have bought into each other and bought into being the best defensive and rebounding team that we can be."

Odds and ends

Tennessee has won five consecutive games over Associated Press top-10 teams dating to last season. ... Senior guard Santiago Vescovi needs five points to reach 1,000 for his career. ... Second-year assistant coach Justin Gainey was an Arizona assistant from 2018-20. ... The Vols have scheduled a home-and-home series with Illinois, with the first contest next December in Knoxville.

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