Sturdy's Tennessee Preview

By Brad Sturdy - IlliniGuys Insider/Analyst; Co-Host, IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

December 9, 2023

(Cover photo courtesy Payton Sturdy/IlliniGuys)

The song goes ‘Headed East to Tennessee: Destination Fame’, and the Illini are looking for even more after a pair of huge wins last week at Rutgers and over Florida Atlantic at Madison Square Garden. But the Vols will be the biggest test of all. Tennessee is a battle tested group with high level athletes that plays some of the best defense in the country. The Illini will need a great effort in this one to get the win. 

 

Setting the Stage

#20/18 Illinois (7-1) at #17/13 Tennessee (5-3) 

Dec. 9, 2023 // 11 a.m. CT (12 p.m. ET) // Knoxville, Tenn. // Food City Center 

TV: CBS – Rich Waltz (Play-by-Play), Bill Raftery & Jay Wright (Analysts), Jon Rothstein (Sideline) 

Radio: Busey Bank Illini Sports Network – Brian Barnhart (Play-By-Play), Deon Thomas (Analyst)

 

Notable

*No. 20 Illinois wraps up a stretch of three straight games away from home over a one-week span, traveling to Knoxville, Tenn. for a Saturday showdown with No. 17 Tennessee (11 a.m. CT, CBS). This is the first part of a home-and-home series between the Illini and Vols, with Illinois set to host Tennessee next season in Champaign (Dec. 14, 2024). 

*Leading the way for the Fighting Illini is Terrence Shannon Jr. The fifth-year star is currently ranked No. 4 in the early race for KenPom National Player of the Year, and highest among all guards. Shannon ranks second in the Big Ten and 13th in the NCAA in scoring at 21.6 points per game  while hitting 53.9% from the field (55-102), the No. 8 mark in the Big Ten. Shannon has scored at least 15 points in every game this season, including 20+ points in five of the last six games. He has an active double-figure scoring streak of 18 games, which began on Jan. 31, 2023. Terrence Shannon Jr. is the only Illini to have played against Tennessee during his collegiate career. Shannon, as a Texas Tech junior in 2021-22, helped lead his former squad to a 57-52 OT win over the Vols on Dec. 7, 2021 at Madison Square Garden, posting a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

*Luke Goode and Shannon rank as the top two players in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage and 3-pointers per game. Shannon averages 3.0 per game at a 45.3% clip (24-53) while Goode averages 2.5 triples at a league-leading 46.5% (20-43) from distance which also ranks 16th nationally. 

*Quincy Guerrier leads one of the nation’s most tenacious rebounding teams, ranking 11th in the Big Ten at 6.9 rebounds per game, overall, and eighth in the league in defensive rebounding (6.6 per game). 

*After missing the three previous games due to a knee injury, Coleman Hawkins returned to the starting lineup at Rutgers and has averaged 7.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in 26 minutes per game over the last two. 

*The Illini are on a five-game winning streak and fresh off a 98-89 victory over No. 11 Florida Atlantic on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. Illinois’ road swing began with a decisive 76-58 win at Rutgers last Saturday to open Big Ten play. 

*Illinois has 18 wins over Top 25 teams the last three-plus seasons, fourth-most nationally. Illinois is looking for its first non-conference road win since Coach Underwood led the 6th-ranked Illini to a dominating 83-68 victory over No. 10 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 8, 2020.

* Defensively, Illinois ranks fourth nationally in field goal percentage defense (.357) and ranks 22nd in the NCAA in both scoring defense (62.4 ppg) and scoring margin (+17.8). Illinois also ranks among the top three nationally in two defensive categories via KenPom: leading the nation in 2-point defense (.363), and ranking third in effective field goal percentage defense (.400). KenPom rates the Illini defense at No. 11 overall in adjusted efficiency (92.6). 

*Prior to Tuesday’s win vs. FAU, Illinois had pulled down 50+ rebounds in each of its previous four victories, the longest streak for the program dating back to the 1963-64 season. • The Illini lead the NCAA in defensive rebounds per game (33.75) and are third in total rebounds per game (46.38), while ranking ninth in rebound margin (+12.5). The Illini have outrebounded their opponent in seven of eight games this season, with the lone exception coming in Tuesday’s win over No. 11 Florida Atlantic in which the Owls posted a narrow 28-26 edge. 

*All three games in the all-time series, which is returning after a 35-year hiatus, have been won by the home team. Tennessee claimed victories on 12/15/67 and 12/10/85, followed by an Illinois victory on 1/17/88.

*Tennessee is on a 24-game non conference home winning streak, dating back to the 2020-21 season opener (11/8/20), with victories over schools such as Arizona, Cincinnati, Colorado and Kansas during that stretch.

*Three Volunteers were tabbed to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame "Starting Five" Preseason Watch Lists. Zakai Zeigler was one of 20 players on the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Preseason Watch List. Santiago Vescovi was among 20 individuals on the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Preseason Watch List. Dalton Knecht, before even playing a game at Tennessee, was one of the 20 selections for the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Watch List.

*In 2022-23, for the second straight season, Santiago Vescovi led the SEC in 3-point percentage during league games (38.7) last year. He also placed second in 3-point makes per game (2.71) during SEC play. As a sophomore in 2021-22, Vescovi shot a league-best 44.5 percent from deep during SEC play while making an SEC-leading 3.17 3-pointers per game.

*In Zakai Zeigler's three seasons, Tennessee is 7-4 against AP top-10 teams. He is averaging 13.1 ppg in the seven victories and 8.3 ppg in the four defeats. He has struggled this season coming off of the torn ACL last March and is shooting at career low marks. 

*Dalton Knecht posted one of the finest outings in Tennessee basketball history on 11/29/23 on the road at No. 17/16 North Carolina, finishing with 37 points, six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and one steal. He shot 13-of-17 from the field, 4-of-8 beyond the arc and 7-of-8 from the stripe.

 

Keys to the Game

  1. Fouls and Free Throws - Tennessee is 4-0 when they shoot more free throws than their opponent, as they want to get to the line. But they will foul a lot, if the officials are calling the game that way. Purdue shot 48 FTs and Carolina shot 38 in wins over Tennessee. If the Illini are able to get to the line, and get Tennessee in foul trouble, it bodes well for them. On the flipside, they have to limit the silly fouls and keep them off the line. 
  2. Weather the Storms - Tennessee is going to make runs. They want to get out in transition and score frequently off of blocked shots and missed long jumpers. Illinois will get open 3’s, Tennessee gives up some clean looks as they try to speed you up, but if you miss they will run. There will be times when the Vols get a 6 or 8 point run, and Illinois has to handle the pressure and make sure it stops there by getting a good shot.
  3. Transition Defense - Illinois did a great job keeping FAU out of transition and they need a similar effort against Tennessee. Now, the Vols will likely get more than 0 fast break points, so they may not be quite as good, but they need to limit transition 3’s and drives and force Tennessee to score in the halfcourt, where they are not nearly as effective
  4. Offensive Execution - The Illini were excellent at getting the matchups they wanted against FAU and Rutgers and they did a fantastic job of exploiting every mismatch and opportunity. Tennessee will trap the post more and run double teams with a scrambling defense behind, so passing must be crisp and the decisions will have to be on point. It’s a different style, but it’s still about decision making and execution. 

 

Prediction

If this was a neutral court or home game I would pick the Illini without hesitation. It’s a pretty good matchup for them. But Tennessee is terrific at home and that makes it tough. They are also desperate, with 3 losses already. I think Illinois does find a way, however, and pulls out the 75-72 win in Knoxville. The Illini are on a roll and the Vols are not quite clicking yet. 

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