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Zags face undersized Volunteers in Nashville

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes turned salesman at the end of a recent press conference.

“They want me to sell tickets (for) Nashville,” Barnes began, prompted by a school official standing nearby.

“Last year when we went out to play Gonzaga in Seattle, it was a great game, great atmosphere,” said Barnes, referring to GU’s 86-79 win in front of 16,770 at Key Arena for the Battle in Seattle. “I’d like for (Zags coach Mark Few) to come in and see the kind of crowd we saw out there.

“They’re a terrific team. They’re always good, but people tell me that have seen them a lot that they’re Final Four good.”

The rematch is Sunday at Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators. Nashville is roughly 185 miles from Tennessee’s campus in Knoxville.

This will be the Zags’ fifth neutral-site game. They haven’t faced a true road game but the vast majority of the Bridgestone crowd will be wearing Tennessee orange.

No. 8 Gonzaga (10-0) hasn’t played since defeating Akron 61-43 last Saturday, a much-needed break for final exams after a stretch of seven games in 17 days.

“It’s tough but at the end of the day everyone has to do it (take finals),” said junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss, an academic All-American when he was at Washington. “We’re going to prepare as we have all year.”

Tennessee (6-4) has had a busy week. The Vols, who had finals several weeks ago, lost to No. 7 North Carolina 73-71 last Sunday. They defeated Tennessee Tech on Tuesday and Lipscomb on Thursday.

Forward John Fulkerson, one of three freshmen starters, suffered an elbow injury against Lipscomb and will miss six weeks. The 6-foot-7 Fulkerson (4.7 points, 4.6 rebounds) is the team’s tallest starter and one of just three Vols 6-7 or taller. The other two, 6-10 Kyle Alexander and 6-7 Lew Evans, average 13.7 and 11.5 minutes, respectively.

The undersized Vols still present matchup problems. Senior Robert Hubbs III, an athletic 6-5 guard, has scored at least 20 points in Tennessee’s last three games. Hubbs and Zags forward Johnathan Williams, a Memphis native, were AAU teammates in sixth grade and visited Tennessee together on a recruiting trip in Sept., 2012.

Freshman forward Grant Williams, 6-5 and 234 pounds, poured in 30 points against Lipscomb.

The Volunteers have pushed three ranked teams – then-No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 13 Oregon in the Maui Invitational and on the road versus North Carolina – but came up short. They led Wisconsin briefly in the second half and went to overtime against Oregon. Tennessee led the Tar Heels by five points before being outscored 10-3 in the final 4:32.

Bridgestone Arena has been the site of numerous SEC tournaments. Gonzaga’s Williams played at Bridgestone Arena in the 2015 tournament for Missouri, which lost to South Carolina in the opening round.

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