Vol-Hawkeye key matchup

You get Final Four-caliber coverage each time you visit InsideTennessee. Check out this preview of tonight's NCAA Tournament game between the Vols and the Iowa Hawkeyes:

DAYTON, Ohio — The marquee outside UD Arena says Tennessee vs. Iowa but the story of the game may well be Antonio Barton vs. Mike Gesell.

Point-guard play is especially critical in March, so tonight's first-round NCAA Tournament game between the Vols and the Hawkeyes could hinge on the Barton-Gesell matchup.

Certainly it's an intriguing matchup, given how similar the two players are:

Barton is a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, Gesell a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder.

Barton averages 25.1 minutes per game, Gesell 23.9.

Barton averages 7.5 points per game, Gesell 8.1.

Barton shoots 38.2 percent from the field, Gesell 38.1 percent.

Barton shoots 34.4 percent from 3, Gesell 31.9 percent.

Barton shoots 65.5 percent from the foul line, Gesell 67.1 percent.

Barton has committed six turnovers in his last four games, including a four-turnover outing against South Carolina. Gesell has committed five turnovers in his last four games, including a four-turnover outing against Michigan State.

Gesell has clear-cut advantages in assists (3.9 per game to 2.1) and steals (43 to 19) but Barton has more momentum. His last four games have seen him make 11 of 29 from the field and 8 of 19 from 3, whereas Gesell's last four games have seen him make 9 of 36 from the field and 3 of 15 from 3. Moreover, Iowa's point guard is coming off an 0-for-10 performance (0 for 5 from 3) in the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Tournament loss to Northwestern.

There's no doubt that point-guard play could be critical tonight.

"It's very important," Barton conceded. "The point guard is the floor general. He has to set everybody up and get everything going defensively for the team. The point guard is the key to the game. You have the ball most of the time, so the guards are going to dictate the game."

Still, he says the Vols will advance only so far as the 1-2 post punch of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon can carry them.

"It's an inside-out game," he said. "Our bigs are going to determine the outcome of the game. If they're getting double-teamed, then it's on us (guards) to knock down shots. If they're being played one-on-one, then it's going to be a long night (for Iowa)."

Like most Vol opponents, the Hawkeyes likely will double-team Stokes, daring Barton to make outside shots. When he succeeds the Vols usually win. He shot well four games in a row as Tennessee beat Vanderbilt by 38, Auburn by 28, Missouri by 27 and South Carolina by 15. He shot poorly (1 for 5) in the SEC Tournament semifinals against Florida, however, and Tennessee lost. Clearly, making some perimeter shots is critical.

"That's very important," Barton said. "A lot of teams are going to double-down on our bigs, so we (guards) have got to be confident that we're going to knock the shot down."

Whereas Iowa's Gesell is making his NCAA Tournament debut tonight, Barton is playing in his fourth one. The post-graduate transfer from the University of Memphis represented the Tigers at The Dance in 2011, 2012 and 2013, so nerves should not be a problem.

"I feel very comfortable," he said. "It's not something I'm new to. I've been in The Tournament three times, so I know what to expect. I know what type of mindset to have."

Jordan McRae sees Barton's poise as critical.

"That helps us out a lot," the Vols' senior wing said. "He sets the tone on this team, so we're looking for his guidance. He's a player who won't be nervous because he's been there before."

Given the importance of guard play at tourney time, you wonder: Is Tennessee's guard play good enough to produce a few wins?

"I think our guard play is fine," junior wing Josh Richardson said. "Jordan McRae's been scoring the ball really well. I haven't been shooting as well as I wanted to lately but I feel I can pick it back up. Antonio can pick it back up. And we've got guys off the bench like Armani (Moore) and Darius (Thompson) who can give us a spark, so I think we're good."

Based on three previous NCAA Tournament appearances, Barton believes he knows what the winning edge is at tournament time.

"Everybody being on the same page and carrying out assignments," he said. "You can't have no breakdowns at this time because everybody's coming out and giving their all."

Although the Vols would prefer to hold one of the NCAA's 60 first-round byes, they aren't insulted about having to beat Iowa to advance into the Round of 64 as an 11 seed. Virginia Commonwealth had to win a first-round game to secure an 11 seed three years ago, and that team wound up playing its way into the 2011 Final Four. That's encouraging.

"It's nice," Richardson said. "But even if that (VCU run to Final Four) didn't happen I have confidence in my guys that we can go deep."

Maymon is planning to "go deep," all right. When asked if the Vols might be so happy to make the field that they aren't focused on advancing, he shook his head.

"Nah, that's not even a question," he said. "We're in it to win this thing."

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Darius Thompson

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