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Tough non-conference play proves valuable to Tennessee in SEC opener

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There were two key reasons Tennessee torched Ole Miss on Saturday in the SEC opener for both teams.

One, Tennessee played a tough non-conference schedule.

Two, Ole Miss did not.

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The Rebels’ 13-0 record and No. 19 ranking was fool’s gold. Ole Miss’ non-conference schedule ranked No. 273 in the nation, according to KenPom rankings.

Fifth-ranked Tennessee (11-3) had played three top 10 teams, lost all three, and beat two quality teams in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Vols were properly battled tested, and it showed during a 90-64 blowout before a sellout crowd Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.

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Center/forward Jonas Aidoo led the way with 24 points and 10 rebounds with two assists and no turnovers against Ole Miss two 7-footers. He was 10 of 19 from the field – both matching career highs. He scored with his right hand, his left hand, on dunks and mid-range jumpers.

“I had a long talk with Jonas after practice the other day,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who got his biggest win against a ranked opponent in nine years at UT. “I said, `You’re so much better than you’re playing. I have really high expectations for you.”

Those remarks fall on deaf ears.

“It’s great to get a compliment (from Barnes),” said Aidoo, who is averaging 11.4 points (second on the team) and 7.0 rebounds. “He’s a hard coach. He wants us to be the best we can be.”

After a slow start (UT hit 1 of its first 12 3-point tries), the Vols were at their best, turning in one of the season’s most complete games. They hit 10 of 18 from long range after the slow start and played relentless defense. Three of Ole Miss starters were a combined 11 of 34 from the field.

“We got kicked today,” said first-year Ole Miss coach Chris Beard. “Our whole organization got kicked. Those are some grown men (on UT’s team).”

One of those grown men is one of UT’s shortest men: 5-foot-9 point guard Zakai Ziegler. Ziegler continued his torrid play with 17 points and 10 assists, appearing fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in February. His sixth career double-double for points and assists is a school record.

In Ziegler’s last four games, he has made at least four 3s three times, hitting 13 of 34 from outside. He had made four 3s twice in 75 previous games.

Josiah-Jordan James continued his steady all-around play with eight points, eight rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.

Santiago Vescovi also continued his solid play: 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and 3 of 8 from 3-point range.

And Jahmai Mashack was terrific off the bench, again. He had 10 points – including two 3-pointers in the final 25 seconds of the first half – four rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. His plus/minus was plus-27 in 23 minutes.

Tennessee dominated on the offensive boards with 19 rebounds (to Ole Miss’ four) which led to 22 second-change points. UT had four offensive rebounds during one possession in the second half.

UT also had 42 points in the paint.

“They were more physical and more competitive,” Beard said.

The Vols had another exceptional game distributing the ball. UT entered the contest ranked among the nation’s best in percentage of baskets made off assists (63.3%). They had 25 assists on 34 made baskets against the transfer-portal laden Rebels. During this seven-game win streak, UT has assisted on about 75% of made field goals.

Tennessee also overcame another pedestrian performance by leading scorer Dalton Knecht: eight points, two rebounds, two turnovers.

The Vols scored inside and out, were fluid on offense, suffocating on defense, hammered the boards (47-24 rebounding edge) and displayed depth.

The Vols were much better prepared to open SEC play than the Rebels – thanks to a much more demanding non-conference schedule.

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