Tennessee basketball is on the precipice of one of the biggest wins in its history when the Vols play Duke in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. That would’ve been the case before top-seeded Purdue suffered a shocking upset Friday night.
Now, the winner of this game will face the winner between 16th-seeded Farleigh Dickinson, who beat the Boilermakers, and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic. Duke or Tennessee will almost certainly be favored in that game. Simply put, the Elite Eight is very much on the table now, and this game could determine that.
A win by Tennessee basketball would result in a Sweet 16 bid for the Vols for the first time since 2018-19. Beating a tradition-laden program like Duke would also carry quite a bit of weight. Tennessee has only gone further than the Sweet 16 once, when former Vols’ head coach Bruce Pearl led the Vols to the Elite Eight after a win over Ohio State in 2009-10. That is widely considered Tennessee’s most significant win in program history.
A win over the Blue Devils would also give Tennessee coach Rick Barnes a chance to improve his NCAA resume. Despite being a head coach since 1987 and garnering various awards, Barnes has only made the Final Four once, with Texas in 2003, since becoming a head coach in 1987 at George Mason. Barnes is 26-26 in tournament play during his career.
The Vols were able to overcome Louisiana 58-55 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday despite a late rally by the Ragin’ Cajuns. They are still coping with the loss of point guard Zakai Ziegler, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.
Duke easily beat Oral Roberts 74-51 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. They began as a two-point favorite over the Vols, but that line has increased to three-and-a-half.
Under first-year coach Jon Scheyer, who replaced Mike Krzyzewski after the legendary coach retired last season, Duke has won 10 straight.
Duke bolted to a fast start against Oral Roberts, scoring the first 15 points of the game and led by at least 13 or more points throughout the remainder of the contest. Junior guard Jeremy Roach matched his career-high scoring mark of 23 points against the Golden Eagles.
Duke, like Tennessee, typically wins with defense. Its starting five of Roach, Tyler Proctor, Mark Mitchell, Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively has particularly meshed well late in the season. The group is nearly +20-points against opponents when they’re all on the floor. The Vols could certainly benefit from some early foul calls against the Blue Devils.
Tennessee’s success, or lack thereof, will depend on defense and guard Santiago Vescovi, who struggled against Louisiana. Vescovi is having to handle scoring and more point guard duties with Ziegler out. The Vols struggle to score, especially when Vescovi isn’t at his best.