The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team tips off the Maui Invitational in game one of the event against the No. 7 Tennessee Volunteers, a program Syracuse hasn’t squared off against in 21 years. The Orange haven’t faced head coach Rick Barnes since the clash with Texas in the 2003 Final Four. During his time as the Providence head coach, the Orange went 9-4 against the Friars. Syracuse and Tennessee, meanwhile, are deadlocked 3-3 all-time against each other in the series.
Given the lack of recent history, we reached out to Will Warren of Stats by Will, a particularly informative newsletter on Vols hoops. Here’s that Q&A below:
Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician: We know how good this team was defensively last year. Does this year’s team have that same potential?
Will Warren: I don’t think that they’re going to be the very best defense in CBB again, but it’s quite plausible that they finish top 5 again. I would wager that it’s most likely they finish in that 6-10 range: really good defensively but likely not the same elite unit. The big question so far is defensive rebounding, where they’ve struggled at various points against all three opponents thus far.
TNIAAM: How has Rick Barnes addressed the offensive shortcomings in the offseason? Does he have to sacrifice some of the defensive potential for better offense?
WW: Barnes went to the portal and got Dalton Knecht from Northern Colorado, a 20 PPG scorer, and Jordan Gainey, who is an assistant’s son that shot 49% from three his freshman year before being asked to do way too much his second season at USC Upstate. Gainey is a pretty solid defender, but Knecht’s best case scenario is just being a net zero defensively and being more or less invisible. He isn’t very good in space, which is fine because he looks like he’s about to go score 20 PPG at the SEC level for a Tennessee team that has desperately needed that type of scorer since the second Grant Williams left campus.
I won’t be surprised if they finish exactly 6th again in KenPom, but with a much more even offense/defense split. This defense won’t reach last year’s heights, but it’s pretty clear that the offense is far superior to what it was a year ago. A scenario where Tennessee finishes both top 20 in offense and defense is quite real.
TNIAAM: What stands out to you about this Tennessee team?
WW: Just the fact they’ve got a real go-to scorer now and several guys that can score at the rim and from three. Last year’s team had just two guys who could do that, and one of them (Zakai Zeigler) was on a scooter at season’s end. This year you’ve got Knecht, Gainey, Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, even Jahmai Mashack all shooting it from deep and attacking the paint. It’s nice!
TNIAAM: Dalton Knecht has had a hot start, but Santiago Vescovi has started slow. Are those things related?
WW: Probably not; they can coexist pretty well. I think that Vescovi is going to really benefit as defenses adjust to take away Knecht. The problem of the last couple years of Tennessee basketball was defenses adjusting to take Vescovi out and Tennessee not having a secondary answer. If adjusting to stuff Knecht opens up more for Vescovi I think that’s a real pick your poison deal for defenses.
TNIAAM: How has Zakai Zeigler looked since coming back from his ACL injury? He’s not starting, but will he guard Judah Mintz?
WW: Zeigler hasn’t looked 100% to my eyes, but he’s going to be required to play and get up to speed thanks to an injury to Tennessee’s nominal backup PG, Freddie Dilione. Zeigler likely will not guard Judah Mintz a ton because Tennessee rotates defenders in the backcourt a lot. I think Vescovi and Gainey will both get extensive turns, for example, as will Jahmai Mashack.
TNIAAM: How has Jordan Gainey fit in with this team off the bench? Is he a better shooter than Knect and Vescovi?
WW: Gainey has well surpassed my personal expectations, which were that Tennessee was getting a solid 8th or 9th man that could be useful from time to time. He really might be a sixth-man level contributor this season, which is terrific for Tennessee’s purposes. I don’t think he’s a better shooter than Vescovi on the whole, but in terms of a catch-and-shoot guy I would hear out an argument for him having the smoothest shot on the team.
TNIAAM: What’s your prediction for this game?
WW: I would go with something like Tennessee 79, Syracuse 65. There’s a path to this being a UT blowout just like there is to a Syracuse surprise win, but what I’d wager is that it takes 10-15 minutes for both teams to feel out the game before Tennessee’s serious advantage over Syracuse’s interior defense takes hold.
TNIAAM: Anything else worth mentioning that we might’ve missed?
WW: I think you’ve mostly covered it! I would add a note that Jonas Aidoo’s a particularly scary rim protector and that backup center Tobe Awaka is quietly emerging as a pretty useful offensive piece and a dominant rebounder.
Thanks to Will for taking the time to answer our questions. The Maui Invitational officially tips off with Syracuse and Tennessee at 2:30 p.m. ET and airs on ESPN2.