The seventh-ranked Tennessee Volunteers hit the road for the first time in the 2020-2021 season as they headed north to take on the twelfth-ranked Missouri Tigers. The Vols have faced solid competition so far this season, but Cuanzo Martin’s Tigers represent their toughest opponent by far to this point. The Tigers entered the game undefeated with a pair of victories against Top 15 teams to their credit. The Tigers are highly ranked and deserve to be. They have looked the part of a team that should consistently be in the Top 25 this season. They have looked to be the second best team in the SEC thus far in the young season, and this matchup with Tennessee looks to figure heavily in who wins the SEC Regular Season Title. That was the caliber of team that these Vols went in and dominated against. Tennessee left Columbia with a 73-53 victory, their largest margin of victory against a Top 25 team in program history, and the game never really felt that close. The Vols opened some eyes nationally on Wednesday night, and they did it by following their blueprint.
Missouri, like all Cuanzo Martin teams, is very good on the defensive end, and specifically gets high quality play from their big men. The Tigers are a physical team that grind on both ends of the floor with an excellent starting five. They make teams work hard when trying to score and don’t give up easy buckets, which made Tennessee’s start even more surprising. The Vols opened the game absolutely shelling the Tigers. Tennessee was shooting the lights out, not missing a single attempt from the field until the first half was nearly gone. Tennessee has faced questions about their offensive consistency all season. At times Tennessee has struggled to hit good looks, and the Tigers felt they had a chance to capitalize on that with their stingy defense. Instead, the Vols came out, moved the ball extremely well, utilized a balanced scoring attack, took good shots, and made all of them. The Vols never trailed in the game, and the Tigers never recovered from the opening barrage Tennessee unleashed on them.
This offensive outburst was coupled with what might have been Tennessee’s most dominant defensive performance of the season. Martin’s teams have a bit of a reputation for wanting to live in the half court, play defense, run through their big men, and keep the pace of the game slow. This Tigers team is different. They can get out and run and are a more complete, well-rounded team on offense. They can score, and have done so this season against good teams, which made the Vols shutting them down even more impressive. Missouri had some offensive spurts to stay within shouting distance of the Vols, but the Tennessee defense was stifling, holding the Tigers to less that 60 points for the game. Yves Pons was a force to be reckoned with at the rim, with 4 blocks for the game, including his 100th career blocked shot. The defense swung around Pons as the Vols put on a clinic. John Fulkerson was solid down low with Pons as they paired in tandem, and the Vols got outstanding defensive efforts from Santiago Vescovi, Josiah Jordan-James, Keon Johnson, and Jaden Springer on the wing. Tennessee played their assignments as individuals and interacted as a team to stifle the Tigers. When Tennessee has their defense rolling, they are one of the best units in the nation, if not the best, and they showed how dominant that can look against the Tigers.
The Vols also showed how miserable it is to have to formulate a defensive scheme to stop them. The Tigers are one of the better defensive teams in the country, and the Vols shot 50% from the floor on the night with 4 players in double figures. Pons started knocking down shots that have just not quite been falling for him this season in a game where he showed flashes of absolute dominance while logging 13 points. Fulkerson contributed his usual double-digit performance with 11 points and 6 rebounds, while Jaden Springer added another double-digit scoring effort off the bench with 13 points as well. Vescovi led the Vols with 15 points on a night he went 3-4 from beyond the arc. The Vols also got another 9 points from Victor Bailey, and 6 points and smothering defense from Keon Johnson. Jordan-James only had 2 points, but he led the Vols with 4 assists and also added 3 rebounds to go with his perimeter defense. The point behind this balanced effort is that while the Vols have several players capable of taking over a game with their scoring, no one has to. Tennessee is so difficult to defend because they can score from every position on the floor and off the bench. They are so difficult to game plan because if one or two players have off shooting nights, there are other players there to pick up the slack. They have players that can offensively take over a game, but unless they have to, they want to play within the offense and deny opposing defenses any one player to key on. When the Vols are as efficient offensively as they were in Columbia, paired with their suffocating defense, they are an extremely difficult team to beat.
Tennessee didn’t just start off the SEC season with a statement, they made program history against a team that should be in the Top 25 the entire season. Tennessee did everything that makes them a great team against Missouri, and the results showed just how scary Tennessee can be. The Vols jumped into SEC play in a big way, and that will continue as they return home. The Vols will host the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, January 2nd. Tipoff from Thompson Boling Arena will be set for 6:00 eastern time, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.