Vols Come to Town

It's quite rare when Kansas is unranked and even rarer when the Jayhawks aren't even receiving votes for the Top 25. While that's the case now, KU can jump back in the national spotlight with a victory over No. 14 Tennessee Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse.

Tipoff is 1 p.m. on ESPN.

KU (9-3) is coming off an impressive 79-43 victory over Albany Tuesday, while the Volunteers (9-2) arrive at the Phog after a resounding 89-62 win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Monday.

Tennessee has won three straight and four of its last five games. The Vols’ two losses this season came against then-No. 7 Gonzaga (83-74 on Nov. 30 in the finals of the Old Spice Classic  in Orlando) and at Temple (88-72) on Dec. 13. The Jayhawks beat the Owls a week later, 71-59, at Allen Fieldhouse.

Bruce Pearl’s Volunteers welcome back two starters off last year’s 31-5 Southeastern Conference champion team. Tennessee is one of the most athletic and deepest squads in the nation. KU coach Bill Self knows it will be his team’s biggest challenge thus far.

“We’ve played some good teams, but we haven’t played anybody with the natural speed that Tennessee has,” Self said. “They’ll make it hard for us to get it in and do some things. It should be a fun game. I would think the building would be juiced. They’re good, they’re athletic, and they put pressure on you for 40 minutes. We need to combat that by putting pressure on them.”

The high-octane Vols are averaging 84.5 points per game while allowing 72.2. Tennessee is also outrebounding foes by a +9.9 margin, 42.7 to 32.8.

The Volunteers are led in scoring by junior forward Tyler Smith at 16.9 points per game. Smith also averages 5.6 rebounds. Junior forward Wayne Chism averages 11.8 points per game, while posting a team-best 8.5 rebounds per contest. Junior guard J.P. Prince is next in scoring at 10.9 points per game, followed by junior guard Bobby Maze (9.5 ppg), freshman swingman Cameron Tatum (9.2 ppg), freshman guard Scotty Hopson (8.8 ppg), sophomore center Brian Williams (6.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg) and freshman forward Renaldo Woolridge (6.6 ppg).

Maze leads the Vols with 49 assists and 16 steals, while Chism, Williams and Woolridge pace the team with seven blocks each. Tennessee has nine players averaging at least 16 minutes per game, led by Smith (29.7 mpg) and Maze (27.1 mpg) — the only two players averaging over 22 minutes.

Chism led the Vols in their victory over Louisiana-Lafayette with 18 points and 15 rebounds before suffering elbow and spine contusions. He was taken to the hospital, but was back at practice and is expected to play Saturday.

“Chism had a terrific game, dominating inside and out,” Pearl said about the junior’s stellar performance.

Pearl hopes Tennessee can continue its solid play and three-game winning streak and stop KU’s 31-game winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse, the fourth longest home streak in the country. (Tennessee has the nation’s third longest home-winning streak at 37 games.)

"We are making progress, but shooting continues to be an issue,” Pearl said. “We are inconsistent. We will spend some practice time on our shooting, and eventually we will shoot well.”

Tennessee is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and only 31.8 percent  from beyond the arc. The Jayhawks are making 47.5 percent of their shots and 36.9 percent from three-point range. KU is averaging 79.4 points per game and allowing 62.7. Kansas lead the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense (37.4 percent) and free-throw percentage (73.1 percent), while ranking second in rebound margin (+7.3) and assists (17.7 apg).

Heading into Saturday’s showdown, Self is still looking to find his team’s identity.

“I want it to be toughness, defense and rebounding,” Self said. “We’re not to that point. We do a lot of things pretty well, but we need to come up with something that we can hang our hat on. Statistically, if you look at our stuff, you’ll see that our first shot defense is something you can really hang your hat on, although I’m not as pleased with it as what the stats say. You’ll say our shot selection for the most part has been pretty good. We’re shooting a good percentage with a bunch of inexperienced guys. We just go through stretches where we labor to score and we get kind of stale. But we did a much better job of executing (against Albany).”

Buoyed by a team meeting after Christmas break, the Jayhawks have stepped up their energy in practices. That carried over with their fine showing against the Great Danes on Tuesday, who shot just 30 percent from the field and were 0 of 15 from beyond the arc.

“We all gathered in the locker room a few days ago and said that we wouldn’t let what happened at Arizona happen again,” sophomore center Cole Aldrich said about KU’s 84-67 loss to the Wildcats in Tucson on Dec. 23.

“We know that we have four or five really tough games coming up and we really need to be focused and have good practices. We kind of got our swagger back. We had a lot of energy. We got rested over Christmas break and we all came back with the mindset that we wanted to get better. We need to take those baby steps to continue to (improve).”

KU will get its next chance to improve against the Vols. Aldrich  knows it will be a huge test.

“It’s going to be one of the biggest games so far this season,” said Aldrich, who bounced back from a poor performance against Arizona with 20 points and three blocks versus Albany.

“It’s really going to help us going into conference play. (They) run, press, (they’re) kind of all over the place. They’re quick. It’s going to be a real tough game. ... I think it’s just going to keep building our confidence (with) the tougher teams we play. Just continue to get better every day in practice ... and we’re going to put ourselves in position to beat those really good teams.”

The Jayhawks are certainly ready to battle against one of the best teams in America. It’s one of the next few games (along with Siena on Jan. 6 and Michigan State Jan. 10) that sophomore guard Tyrel Reed said “are great opportunities to showcase our talent and prove that we belong.”

And while Self doesn’t care about rankings, a KU victory on Saturday could catapult Kansas back in the Top 25.

“It will be a statement game if we come out and compete and win a big game like this,” freshman Travis Releford said.

Notes:

*Tennessee’s Renaldo Woolridge is the older brother of future Jayhawk Royce Woolridge, a 6-1 junior guard from Phoenix who already committed to Kansas. Royce attended the KU-Arizona game in Tucson.

*Self said after the Albany game that “there’s an outside chance, but probably doubtful, though” that Mario Little would play Saturday. Little suffered a broken bone in his left (non-shooting) hand over two weeks ago. Last year’s Junior College Player of the Year will likely make his KU debut against Siena on Jan. 6 if he doesn’t suit up Saturday.

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