KNOXVILLE — Tennessee already knew the upcoming men's basketball season would include spending Thanksgiving week in Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.
The Volunteers now know their opening opponent, too.
Tennessee's nonconference schedule got more difficult Tuesday, when the revealing of the Maui Invitational bracket paired the Vols with perennial Big Ten power Wisconsin for a first-round game on Nov. 21 (2:30 p.m. on ESPN2).
"For us it's going to be an unbelievable challenge," Vols coach Rick Barnes said Tuesday during a conference call.
"When you look at Wisconsin and who they have coming back and the way they finished last year making a run to the Sweet 16, we know that's going to be an incredible challenge for us."facebook
Oregon faces Georgetown in the other matchup in Tennessee's half of the bracket. The Vols would play either the Ducks, who reached last season's Elite Eight after winning the Pac-12 regular-season title, or the Hoyas the day after the opener. Tennessee would face an opponent from the other half of the bracket in its third game in three days.
Oklahoma State faces Connecticut and North Carolina takes on Chaminade in the other first-round matchups.
"It will be an unbelievable learning experience for our kids, our program, our players," Barnes said. "Tournaments like this only help you really and truly evaluate where you are. Really in some ways reality sets in where you are. It's going to be one that our players will look forward to."
It will be the fourth game between Tennessee and Wisconsin. The Vols won the initial meeting in the Far West Classic in Portland in 1981, and the teams split a pair of on-campus meetings in 2000 and 2001. In the first of those two games, Tony Harris scored 22 points and hit six 3-pointers as No. 9 Tennessee beat 18th-ranked Wisconsin 66-56 in Knoxville.
The Badgers return four starters from last season, when they went 22-13 and reached the Sweet 16 after back-to-back Final Four appearances. Leading scorer Nigel Hayes (15.7 ppg) elected to stay for his senior season instead of entering the NBA draft. Big Ten freshman of the year Ethan Happ and other starters Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown return, too.
"I don't know a lot about them individually, but I obviously know Coach Barnes is a terrific coach," Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. "We played against him at Texas when he was there twice, and he really does a terrific job. I know he's got things going in the right direction at Tennessee.
"When you're in this tournament, you know it's going to be a terrific matchup no matter who you play."
Tennessee's schedule already included a trip to face the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, and the Vols also play Gonzaga in Nashville and host Georgia Tech, Kansas State and UT-Chattanooga.
"I think it will play out as one of the toughest in the country when you get down to it," Barnes said, "but we've always said we don't want to be there in a position (where a weak schedule hurts us) if we're able to get ourselves in position to be in the NCAA tournament, which we fully expect to do.
"We want our schedule to mirror what a big-time basketball program should look like. To do that, you've got to be willing to travel and play anybody anywhere at any time. That's what we want it to look like.
"We want to play and be known for playing one of the best schedules in the country every year."
The Vols will have seven freshmen and just three upperclassmen: junior Detrick Mostella, senior Robert Hubbs and graduate transfer Lew Evans, who enrolled in Knoxville earlier this month after earning his degree at Utah State.
"He's just what we thought he would be," Barnes said. "He's got a great feel for the game, and he's going to blend in unbelievably with his teammates. They like him, and they know he's going to compete and bring some skill level to us that we need. Right now the main thing is to get him in the kind of shape that he needs to be in."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.