Sunday, No. 1 Gonzaga (9-0) and No. 7 Tennessee (6-1) face off in Phoenix in the opening game of the Jerry Colangelo Classic.
You can watch the game at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Beforehand, let’s look at three factors that will inform our prediction for the matchup:
Tennessee needs to stay true to its identity
While Kansas and Gonzaga are definitely not interchangeable, if we’re going to get a good idea at how Tennessee will fare against the Bulldogs, it helps to look at how it played against its toughest opponent so far this season — No. 2 Kansas.
First, some reference: Very few teams shoot fewer 3s per game than the Volunteers, who — other than the Kansas game — average just 19 3-pointers attempted per game, the 301st most out of 353 teams. And of those, they only hit 33.3 percent (ranked 205th in the country).
Yet against the Jayhawks, Tennessee shot 27 3-pointers and made only seven (25.9 percent). That’s how you shoot yourself out of a game.
To put it bluntly, Tennessee is not a 3-point shooting team. No Volunteer player averages more than 1.9 made 3-pointers per game. And that’s fine. Grant Williams leads the team with 20.4 points per game, and he’s only hit five 3-pointers all year. Tennessee doesn’t need to shoot lights out from beyond the arc to beat Gonzaga, but it does have to stick to its identity.
Gonzaga's key? Exploit the key
Let’s go back to that Tennessee-Kansas game. Through the first 15 minutes of the game, Kansas scored just 25 points. Of those, 20 came from the paint. That can't happen against Gonzaga.
Junior standout Rui Hachimura is averaging 22.3 points per game for the Bulldogs, and shooting 59 percent from 2-point range. Brandon Clarke is putting up 16.4 points on 71.4 percent shooting inside the arc. They don't need much space to make things happen in the paint. Exhibit A:
Neither team is one-dimensional; both have four players averaging double figures on the season. But limiting Gonzaga’s presence in the key will be a great start for the Volunteers.
Gonzaga has the nation's best offense. Will Tennessee's stout defense keep the Bulldogs contained?
Gonzaga currently ranks as the No. 1 team in offensive efficiency, scoring 127.5 points per 100 possessions. That is an absolutely insane rate. They’ve averaged 96.4 points per game, second only to The Citadel, with 103.
Naturally then, Tennessee’s best hope is to keep this game low-scoring, relatively speaking. In games where Gonzaga has scored more than 90 points, the Bulldogs’ average margin of victory is 28.5 points. When they’ve been held under 90, that margin drops to 3.33.
That’s definitely an achievable goal, as the Volunteers will be the best defense that Gonzaga has faced all year. Tennessee’s defensive efficiency of 86.1 points per 100 possessions is the 16th best in the country. Even with the overtime game against Kansas, Tennessee hasn’t allowed a single opponent to score more than 87 points in a game. If they can keep that trend up against Gonzaga, the Volunteers should be right in the game until the end.
You may have noticed a theme in the above stats: All focus on how Tennessee can limit Gonzaga. That's not an accident. A month into the season, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country and playing like it. Tennessee definitely has a chance to knock them off, but it's an uphill battle, even on a neutral court.
Prediction: Gonzaga stays undefeated, holding off Tennessee 85-79.