Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner a massive challenge for Vols

Creighton Athletics photo / Creighton 7-foot-1, 270-pound senior Ryan Kalkbrenner averages 17.4 points and shoots 65.1% from the floor entering Friday night's Sweet 16 matchup against Tennessee in Detroit.
Creighton Athletics photo / Creighton 7-foot-1, 270-pound senior Ryan Kalkbrenner averages 17.4 points and shoots 65.1% from the floor entering Friday night's Sweet 16 matchup against Tennessee in Detroit.

Several minutes into Saturday morning, Tennessee will either be through for the 2023-24 basketball season or celebrating the program's second trip to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.

Regardless of the result in the Midwest Region semifinal against Creighton, the Volunteers are going to be the Volunteers.

"I just think we're going into this knowing that nothing has to change," Tennessee junior guard Jahmai Mashack said Thursday afternoon in a news conference. "We don't have to adjust anything. We don't have to do anything different than what we've been doing all year, which I feel is important for us as a team.

"It's just making sure we're all on the same page."

The second-seeded Vols (26-8) and third-seeded Bluejays (25-9) are scheduled to tip off Friday at roughly 10:10 p.m. inside Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, with TBS and truTV televising the contest. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Thursday that fifth-year senior guard Santiago Vescovi is "under the weather a little bit" but that he expects the 34-game starter to be ready.

Creighton and Tennessee have multiple similarities, beginning with veteran rosters, but the Bluejays possess three players averaging more than 17 points per game: senior guard Baylor Scheierman (18.3), junior guard Trey Alexander (17.7) and senior center Ryan Kalkbrenner (17.4).

Scheierman, who is 6-foot-7 and grabs 9.1 rebounds a game while also connecting on 87.0% of his free throws, played the past three seasons at South Dakota State, so the leading scorer from each team arrived via the transfer portal. Tennessee fifth-year senior guard Dalton Knecht is among the four finalists for the Naismith Trophy after competing the past two seasons at Northern Colorado.

  photo  Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee junior forward Jonas Aidoo, left, and fifth-year senior guard Dalton Knecht take questions during Thursday afternoon's news conference that previewed Friday night's meeting with Creighton in a Midwest Region semifinal.

The obvious challenge for Tennessee is stopping Kalkbrenner, a 7-1, 270-pounder who shoots 65.1% from the floor.

"I've watched him, and he's pretty big," said Vols junior forward Jonas Aidoo, who is 6-11 and 240 pounds. "He's 7-1 or 7-2 and 270, but I've played pretty much every single big in the nation who's top-rated, so I feel like I've prepared for this moment. I just want to help my team lock in defensively and offensively on the scouting report."

Said Barnes: "He's a tough cover for our post players. He's just kind of daring you and forcing you into making the right decision. He's a person that you've got to give a lot of attention to."

Creighton averages 80.6 points per game to Tennessee's average of 79.1, and the Bluejays launch 29.3 3-pointers a game, which ranks ninth nationally, compared to 25.4 by the Vols. The Bluejays have a rebound margin of plus-4.7 per game, while the Vols are at plus-4.3.

"I think the thing that's going to give us the edge in the game is taking pride in our defense," Mashack said. "Whether we're hitting shots or not, if our defense is where it's supposed to be, we can create offense in transition. That's where I feel we're the best — creating easy layups and getting to the foul line.

"As much as they've had their tall center down low, we need to be able to feed our big guys the ball to get points and maybe get him in foul trouble. We're going to try and use everybody on the court and space the floor out and really just run our offense."

Creighton is known for its drop defense, but the Vols insist they're going to be themselves.

"We don't care about the — we do what we do," Barnes said. "We're not based strictly on analytics. We're going to get our players in position. If they're good mid-range shooters, we want them to take those shots. What makes them good is that they're solid and they do what they do. They're a team that doesn't foul.

"They've got their style that's gotten them here, and we do, too. You can pretty much expect both teams to do what they do that's gotten them this far."

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