Fresh off its first loss of the season on the road at Wisconsin, No. 13 Maryland men’s basketball has one of its toughest games of the season Sunday when it faces No. 7 Tennessee at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York as a part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational.
Despite the loss, the Terps are still 8-1 and have proven they can hang with ranked opponents — defeating now-No. 17 Illinois eight days ago — but are in the midst of a tricky four-game stretch that is testing the team’s resiliency still relatively early in the season.
“I’ve never played conference games this early. So this is a big adjustment for me ... I think we’ve been on the road a lot and we haven’t been at home enough practicing. I’ll never — I can promise you this: I’ll never go through a stretch like this again in the nonconference,” Maryland head coach Kevin Willard said.
KenPom.com projects Tennessee to win the game 68-63, favoring the Volunteers in all but one of the 22 remaining games on their schedule.
Sunday’s game is the third game of a quadruple-header and is scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m., but that time could shift back if the earlier games run long. It will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1.
Tennessee Volunteers (8-1, 0-0 SEC)
Rick Barnes is in his 36th season as a head coach and his eighth at Tennessee. In those 35 previous seasons, Barnes has made the NCAA Tournament 26 times.
“That’s insane,” Willard said of how frequently Barnes’ teams qualify for the Big Dance. “So I think his consistency and how hard his teams play and how well that they’re coached defensively is really impressive.”
The one thing missing from Barnes’ stocked trophy cabinet, though, is the sport’s ultimate prize: a national championship.
He’s hoping that narrative will be shut down soon, as this year’s Tennessee team has the pieces in place to make a run to Houston and win it all. Currently ranked No. 7 in the country by the Associated Press and No. 3 by KenPom, the Volunteers are a legitimate contender to cut down the nets in early April. Their sole loss to an inconsistent Colorado squad was an unexpected blemish in the second game of the season, but the Vols are still beating up on their competition, winning their last seven games by an average of 29 points, including a 14-point win over now-No. 6 Kansas.
Players to watch
Julian Phillips, freshman forward, six-foot-eight, No. 2 — A five-star recruit out of high school, Phillips has made an instant impact for Tennessee and has asserted himself as one of the brightest young stars in college basketball. He leads the team with 12.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. As a long, athletic wing that can play both inside and out, he has all the tools to continue to dominate at the college level and seamlessly make the jump to the NBA.
Zakai Zeigler, sophomore guard, five-foot-nine, No. 5 — Zeigler was a preseason All-SEC first team honoree by the league’s coaches after a sensational freshman season in 2021-22. As a sixth man — a role he has continued to evolve in this season — Zeigler ranked fourth on the team in scoring but made his biggest impact on the defensive end, earning a spot on the SEC All-Defensive Team. Already averaging over two and a half steals per game this year, Zeigler will be pestering the Terps’ guards all game long.
Olivier Nkamhoua, senior forward, six-foot-nine, No. 13 — Having started in all nine games thus far, Nkamhoua has been a reliable piece for the Volunteers in the frontcourt. Even though he often mingles near the paint and catches the ball with his back to the hoop, Nkamhoua has plenty of athletic moves in his arsenal that can be used to get a layup or mid-range jump shot. He is averaging 10.8 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 57.4% from the field.
Defense. Tennessee is one of the best defensive squads in the country and could make a strong argument as the nation’s best. The Volunteers rank first in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and have held opponents to 50 or fewer points in seven of their nine games. They are allowing the lowest opponent 3-point shooting percentage in Division I and rank top three at KenPom in defensive turnover percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage. In short, Tennessee forces turnovers and bad shots at as high a rate as any team.
“I think defensively, this is the best defensive team I’ve seen in a long time,” Willard said.
Health. The Vols are one of the best teams in the country when at full strength. The problem is, a few notable players have been banged up in recent games and their statuses for Sunday are still up in the air. Most-talked about is the shoulder injury that has kept star senior guard Santaigo Vescovi — maybe the team’s best player when healthy — out for the last two games, and Barnes recently expressed hope that Vescovi will play Sunday but wouldn’t give a definitive answer. Additionally, senior guard Tyreke Key left Wednesday’s game against Eastern Kentucky with leg cramps and senior guard Josiah Jordan-James, a preseason All-SEC honoree, has been on a minutes count in the last two contests after missing four with soreness related to an offseason knee surgery.
Three things to watch
1. How will the Terps’ senior stars perform? Willard is still figuring out the back end of his rotation, but seniors Donta Scott and Hakim Hart were locked into starting roles the second they decided to stay in the offseason. They both had poor offensive displays Wednesday night, though, combining to go 5-of-24 from the field. The team couldn’t overcome that against Wisconsin and, barring a miracle, won’t be able to against Tennessee either, so they’ll need to step up to lead the Terps to a victory.
2. Can Maryland take care of the ball? In the Terps’ loss to Wisconsin, they turned the ball over 14 times, playing right into the hands of a Badgers team looking to force mistakes. Tennessee is as good as any team at causing miscues and is even better than Wisconsin at turning those mistakes into points on the other end. If Maryland doesn’t play disciplined Sunday, it will pay.
3. Pace of play. Maryland is at its best when it is pushing the pace and speeding up opponents with lots of pressure and solid shot-making. Barnes has talked about picking up the pace of play for his team but still ranks in the middle of the pack nationally in adjusted tempo. Whichever team is able to control the flow of the game will have an upper hand in