Monday, November 29, 2021
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Playing big games is ‘the only way you can win big games’

Rick Barnes needed one highlight from one game to explain to his Tennessee team just how intense high-level college basketball can be.

The clip came from the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis, when an unranked and relatively unknown group of Vols were making waves in the Bahamas. First, they upset an 18th-ranked Purdue team. Then, the next day, they led No. 5 Villanova by 12 at halftime.

“We showed a frame to the guys the other day about the rebounding,” Barnes said on Tuesday before practice at Thompson-Boling Arena. “I promise you there were eight people in there. Grant Williams was in the middle of it and you could not even see him. It was that kind of intensity and effort.”

Similar intensity and effort will be required this weekend, when No. 17 Tennessee (2-0) faces its first test of the season against another fifth-ranked Villanova team (2-1) in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

The Vols, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s doubleheader, will face either No. 6 Purdue or No. 18 North Carolina in the four-team field.

“There is no question you want to be in this type of field,” Barnes said, “with teams that have had great success over the years — for many, many years.”

Barnes has filled up Tennessee’s non-conference schedule with these kinds of games each of the last six seasons — Gonzaga, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati have all come and gone as multi-games series in years past.

“I think players and coaches, we all like big games,” Barnes said. “I have always said in non-league, the only way you can win big games is you have to play them.”

A home game against VCU, a neutral-site game against top-ranked Gonzaga team and a road game at Notre Dame were all on the schedule last season, before each game was cancelled due to COVID. The Vols scrambled to add a home date with Colorado to open the season, which then became a three-game series between the two schools, with a game at Colorado this season before a neutral-site game in 2021-22.

After the weekend tournament in Connecticut and the December 4 game at Colorado, Tennessee plays Texas Tech in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York on December 7. Rival Memphis awaits at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on December 18, before a home date with Arizona on December 22 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

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Saturday is just the fifth meeting all time between Villanova and the Vols, with ‘Nova winning three.

Outside of the Bahamas, Tennessee battled Purdue into overtime in the 2019 NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen round, with the third-seeded Boilermakers holding off the No. 3-seed Vols after their dramatic rally in the second half.

After getting hired at Tennessee, Barnes quickly worked to get a home-and-home with North Carolina on the book, with the Vols eventually playing at North Carolina during the 2016-17 season and hosting the Tar Heels in Knoxville in 2017-18.

“We have had some epic games (against Purdue),” Barnes said. “Certainly, North Carolina through the years. I go back to the game with Villanova in the Bahamas. That was as intense of a game and you think about it, that year we were picked 13th and won the (SEC). They go on to win the national championship. That time of year, that was a high-level, hard-fought game.”

It’s the exact kind of games, and kind of opponents, this new-look Tennessee roster needs early in the season — the kind of tests Barnes always wants on the schedule.

The 12-point lead at halftime against Villanova didn’t hold up in 2017. The Vols got outscored by 21 in the second half.

Still, they went on to win 26 games that season, win a share of the SEC’s regular-season title and play as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“That was a great thing for our team at that time,” Barnes said. “They did realize what it takes and how every possession matters. We try to schedule it because we believe that we should be one of those schools that when people think of high-level basketball programs, that Tennessee is always in that mix.”

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