With last night’s loss by number one ranked Duke, Tennessee (14-1) has a big opportunity to move up from its number three ranking in the polls with tonight’s home matchup with the Arkansas Razorbacks (10-5). With a large number of NBA scouts also expected in attendance, the game at Thompson-Boling Arena figures to be a big one.
Chance at No. 1?
A week after winning two road games against the Missouri Tigers and Florida Gators, Tennessee held steady at No. 3 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls. Duke and Michigan came in ahead of the Vols at No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Associated Press. However, Tennessee garnered 13 first-place votes to second-ranked Michigan’s 9 — good for second most votes for any team in the poll behind No. 1 Duke’s (36). As for the USA Today Coaches Poll, UT trailed No. 1 ranked Virginia and No. 2 Duke.
With this week’s conference games against the Razorbacks and the Alabama Crimson Tide, two more victories in conjunction with last night’s loss by the Blue Devils likely means Tennessee has a chance to reach a number one ranking for the first time since 2007-2008. It would be only the second time in school history the Vols sat atop the polls.
Speaking of rankings, bracketologist guru Joe Lunardi has Tennesee as a one seed in his latest seedings projection. With a NET ranking of No. 5, a BPI of 7, and a lone loss against a top-ten Kansas, Lunardi has the Vols holding firm on the top line. The other three top seeds (as expected) according to Lunardi: Duke, Virginia, and Michigan.
NBA Scouts on Notice
The play of Tennessee senior Admiral Schofield (17.7 ppg) and junior Grant Williams (18.9 ppg) has not gone unnoticed by NBA talent evaluators. As reported by Volquest‘s Rob Lewis, Tennessee expects 14 NBA scouts in attendance for tonight’s game against Arkansas. Both players were recently projected as two of the top 50 prospects in Bleacher Report’s latest 2019 NBA Mock Draft. Williams came in at 17 while Schofield slotted in 38.
Some of tonight’s increased attention from NBA evaluators stems from the play of Arkansas sophomore Daniel Gafford. The 6-11, 233 stretch four surprised many when he returned to Fayetteville for his sophomore season after several mock drafts listed him as a first-round prospect following his freshman year. The Bleacher Report mock currently has Gafford listed at 21. Gafford leads the SEC in double-doubles (7) on the year and is averaging 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He currently is the only player in the SEC to rank in the top four of the following categories: field goal percentage (.658), rebounding, offensive rebounding (3.0 rpg) and double-doubles. Coming off a loss to LSU in which he scored a career-high 32 points, the Vols look to have their hands full.
Match-up to Watch
This is a no-brainer: Tennessee center Kyle Alexander versus Razorback sophomore Daniel Gafford.
For as much credit as Rick Barnes gets for the development of Schofield and Williams, arguably no Tennessee player has improved as much as Alexander since his arrival on Rocky Top. Alexander showed up as a rail-thin 200 pound project from Canada in the summer of ’15. As he steadily packed on the pounds, Alexander evolved from a pure shot blocker and rebounder into a legitimate scoring threat. He’s seen his point total double from nearly a season ago (10.1) and pulled down 36 rebounds in his last three games. Gafford will present a unique challenge. In addition to his previously mentioned statistics, Gafford has 44 dunks on the year in just 15 games — good for almost three per game. UT Coach Rick Barnes was effusive in his praise for Gafford’s well-rounded game.
“I think he’s terrific. A year ago at their place, I just loved what he’s about. I love his hands, I love his quick bounce off the floor. He’s really a terrific player.”
In Gafford’s first match-up with Tennessee a year ago, the talented big man went for a double-double (15 & 8) in the Razorbacks 95-93 overtime win. Three months later, the Vols exacted revenge in a convincing 84-66 win, holding Gafford to just 8 points and 5 rebounds. The Vols ability to make life difficulty on Gafford features prominently in the outcome of tonight’s contest.
Williams Continues to Collect Honors
Congratulations are in order to Grant Williams after the junior forward found himself on the Sporting News midseason First-team All-American list. The talented Williams — both on and off the court — continues to rack up awards in just his third season at Tennessee. In recognizing Williams as a mid-season All-American, Sporting News called the “jack of all trades” the “most functionally complete player in Division I.” Not bad for a guy found himself ranked as the No. 191 best prospect coming out of high school. The Blue Devils’ Zion Williamson, Kansas’ Dedric Lawson, Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston rounded out the first-team. Coincidentally enough, Williams has faced off against two of those four, losing to Kansas and Lawson in overtime and besting the Zags and Hachimura in a thriller. Of note, Sporting News has Gafford on the third-team All-American list.
You can catch the Vols in action tonight against the Arkansas Razorbacks on ESPN2 at 6:00 PM Central. Vegas favors the Vols by 14.5.
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