PHOENIX – Every marquee matchup on Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule has presented a unique challenge.
Arizona, somewhat in rebuilding mode, and Gonzaga have butted heads for West Coast supremacy for years. Duke has four exceptional freshmen who are probable one-and-dones. Guard-heavy Creighton stretched the floor with 3-point shooters. Washington offered up a 2-3 zone, four prominent seniors and talented sophomore Jaylen Nowell.
Tennessee is a combination of Illinois’ defensive tenacity (with better personnel) and Washington’s experience, but the seventh-ranked Volunteers are far more proven and bring a physical, hard-nosed brand of basketball.
The top-ranked Zags (9-0) and Volunteers (6-1) collide Sunday in the first game of the Jerry Colangelo Classic at Talking Stick Arena. No. 6 Nevada faces Grand Canyon in the second game.
Tennessee returned its top six scorers and 11 of 13 scholarship players from a 26-win team that was picked 13th in the preseason SEC poll and finished No. 13 in the final AP poll.
The Vols have star power with 2018 SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and wing Admiral Schofield, a preseason All-SEC selection. They are deep, talented and – get used to the word – physical.
“They’re just a tough, physical team with a bunch of bodies that come at you,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who is close friends with Tennessee counterpart Rick Barnes. “They’re quick and athletic. They’ve got a guy like (Washington’s Noah) Dickerson inside with Williams. He requires a lot of attention.
“It’s a little like playing West Virginia’s toughness, but just in a different game.”
The Vols are balanced, too. They make nearly 50 percent of their shots and average 83.7 points. They hold opponents to 35.5 percent shooting and 63.6 points. They’re in the top 40 nationally, including fourth in field-goal percentage defense, in all four of those categories.
They rank in the top 15 in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
Both teams tested themselves in the first month of the season. Gonzaga has defeated six power conference foes, including No. 1 Duke in Maui. Tennessee has faced an easier schedule, but thumped Louisville by 11 points before falling to No. 2 Kansas in overtime in Brooklyn.
The Vols led most of the second half against the Jayhawks. Schofield scored nine points in overtime, but the Vols were without Williams, who fouled out late in regulation.
By facing Kansas and Gonzaga, it marks the first time Tennessee has played two top-five opponents prior to the SEC season.
Gonzaga has snagged its share of close wins, including Illinois, Duke, Creighton and Washington.
“Other teams are coming out with high emotion because we’re No. 1 in the country,” GU junior forward Rui Hachimura said. “I think we stick together every time (in tight games).”
Tennessee doesn’t want to get into a shootout with the Zags and would be comfortable keeping the score in the 60s or low 70s.
The Vols prefer to operate inside the 3-point arc. They rank No. 301 nationally in 3-point attempts per game. Guard Lamonte Turner, the SEC co-sixth man of the year last season when he made a team-high 70 3s, has only played in three games coming back from a shoulder operation.
Gonzaga holds a 4-1 series lead with all five meetings since 2007.
“Big-time team, ranked, neutral site,” senior point guard Josh Perkins said after Gonzaga edged Washington 81-79 on Wednesday. “We gotta get ready to go.”
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