If 14th-ranked Tennessee stumbles out of the Southeastern Conference gate Wednesday night (9 on ESPN2) at 19th-ranked Alabama, it won't be due to a lack of early season challenges. The Volunteers will enter Coleman Coliseum with a 9-2 record, with Villanova and Texas Tech responsible for the setbacks.
"We've tried to prepare our team with a tough non-league schedule with trying to hit as many variables as we could," Vols seventh-year coach Rick Barnes said this week on a Zoom call. "I do think our guys have responded, and I think we've learned from other teams as far as how they go about it.
"I think we're ready, but the fact is we have to be."
Alabama should be ready as well, having knocked off Gonzaga and Houston — half of last season's Final Four — and having also succumbed to the respected but unranked trio of Davidson, Iona and Memphis. The Crimson Tide fell 92-78 to Penny Hardaway's Tigers in Memphis on Dec. 14, which was four days before the scheduled Tennessee-Memphis game in Nashville was canceled due to the Tigers having COVID-19-related issues.
Wednesday's showdown in Tuscaloosa begins a league schedule for Tennessee that also includes ventures to No. 16 LSU and to No. 18 Kentucky by mid January.
"You've got to play who you've got to play," Barnes said. "The schedule is what it is. You've just got to embrace it and go with it. The bottom line is that we want to be our best in March."
Said Vols junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua: "You have to lock in on another level. I think we do a good job of making non-conference play similar to conference play."
Alabama ranks 15th nationally in scoring with 82.9 points per game, with the Crimson Tide led by the guard trio of Jaden Shackelford (16.8), Jahvon Quinerly (14.7) and Keon Ellis (12.4). Tennessee will counter with a defense that yields 59.3 points per contest to rank 21st nationally, and the Vols also have an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.71 per game that ranks sixth.
The Vols currently are pegged as an NCAA tournament 3 seed by ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, the highest of any SEC team, but Barnes is way more concerned with the precarious COVID-19 landscape than any postseason projections.
"I'm just hoping for the league that we have a year without a lot of shutdowns and let these guys do what they love to do," Barnes said.
Lack of preparation
Five-star freshman forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is averaging 13.7 minutes, 5.0 points and 3.5 rebounds this season for the Vols, but he did not record a stat in two minutes of action in last Wednesday's 77-73 topping of Arizona.
Huntley-Hatfield played 23 minutes last month against North Carolina, so why so few against the Wildcats?
"The truth behind that was his preparation from two days and one day out," Barnes said. "We didn't feel like he had the prep we needed him to have. A game like that is not a chance to say, 'Let's see what he can do.' I'll be disappointed if he doesn't learn from that."
When Olivier was asked about Huntley-Hatfield's abrupt minutes reduction, he said, "If you go out there not ready, it's not fun."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.