Vols haven’t lost and Aggies haven’t won since last meeting

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee players huddle during their 85-69 loss at Texas A&M on Feb. 10. The No. 5 Volunteers and the Aggies meet again Saturday night inside the Food City Center.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee players huddle during their 85-69 loss at Texas A&M on Feb. 10. The No. 5 Volunteers and the Aggies meet again Saturday night inside the Food City Center.

Tennessee is less than two weeks removed from its worst loss of the basketball season.

The team that applied that thumping — Texas A&M — invades Knoxville on Saturday night.

Buzz Williams and his Aggies were more than prepared for Tennessee’s trip to College Station on Feb. 10, building a 22-point lead early in the second half before coasting to an 85-69 triumph. The Volunteers responded with impressive drubbings of Arkansas (92-63) and Vanderbilt (88-53) before having to rally for a 72-67 win at Missouri this past Tuesday night.

“It seems like a long time ago in some ways,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Friday afternoon during a news conference when asked about the rematch. “Any time you go through a second go-around, you do have some familiarity with them, but the prep has to be the same. We’ve got to do a lot better job defensively than we did the first time.”

Tennessee will carry a 20-6 record that includes a 10-3 mark in Southeastern Conference play and a No. 5 ranking into Saturday’s showdown, which will tip at 8 on ESPN. For Barnes, it will be his first opportunity at 800 career wins, with Tuesday’s triumph at Mizzou upping his all-time mark to 799-412.

While the Vols were able to reel off three straight victories since stumbling in College Station, the Aggies have sustained three consecutive defeats, falling at Vanderbilt (74-73) and at Alabama (100-75) before losing at home to Arkansas (78-71). Texas A&M has slumped to 15-11 overall and 6-7 in the league, and the Aggies were the last team in Joe Lunardi’s projected 68-team NCAA tournament bracket on ESPN that was released Friday.

“They’ve played hard,” Barnes said. “If you go back and look at that Alabama game, Alabama made 18 3s, but their effort was phenomenal. Buzz’s team is going to play hard. They’re going to go at it.”

Although Tennessee’s win at Mizzou was its shakiest SEC victory of the season, the Vols did thrive when junior forward Jonas Aidoo and sophomore forward Tobe Awaka were on the floor at the same time. The two combined for 32 points and 14 rebounds and for nearly 54 minutes of action.

Barnes was asked Friday what allowed Aidoo and Awaka to play so well together.

“Because of our defensive package,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll switch 1 through 5, but normally we’ll go 1 through 4. If one of them is at the 4, which would normally be Tobe, he would be switching more than he’s normally used to. He did a good job the other night, and he’s gotten better with it.

“The better all of our post guys can get when we switch, it helps us.”

Deep appreciation

When Tennessee fifth-year senior guards Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi were freshmen in the 2019-20 season, they combined for 32 appearances in SEC games out of 36 opportunities. Vescovi played in all 18 league games, while James played in 14, missing four due to a hip injury.

Current Vols freshman forward Cade Phillips has played so far in just three of a possible 13 league contests.

“I have all the respect in the world for Jo and Santi,” Phillips said Friday. “They’ve been here for five years, and they’ve been consistent. They’ve been playing for a very long time, and the appreciation I have for them and what they’ve been through and how they continue to approach every day is huge.”

Odds and ends

Barnes would become the third coach to earn his 800th career win while coaching in the SEC, joining Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and John Calipari. … Junior point guard Zakai Zeigler is four assists away from becoming the ninth Tennessee player with 400 in his career. … The Vols have amassed 20 or more assists in 10 games this season.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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