No. 11 Tennessee won’t officially open the season until hosting Tennessee Tech on Monday in Knoxville, Tenn., but the Volunteers already have a big win – even if it doesn’t count.
The Volunteers defeated No. 2 Gonzaga 99-80 in an exhibition for charity on Oct. 29 in Frisco, Texas.
Guard Tyreke Key scored a game-high 26 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range.
Key, a graduate transfer from Indiana State, didn’t play last year after undergoing shoulder surgery. But against Gonzaga, he showed he could provide an immediate impact for the Volunteers, who are coming off their first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 1979.
“Tyreke came from a level that is extremely good – the Missouri Valley Conference is a great basketball league,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “You see so many of those guys that have transferred up that have done well.”
Forward Uros Plavsic had 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting, while five-star freshman Julian Phillips had 12 points, all in the second half. Phillips has drawn praise from Barnes.
“His time here, it’s been incredible,” Barnes told 247Sports about the 6-foot-8 Phillips. “Almost like a dream to coach him.”
Tennessee is looking to go deeper in March after losing in the Round of 32 to Michigan last year.
The Volunteers return several key players, including guards Santiago Vescovi (13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists per game, 40.3 percent from 3-point range), Josiah-Jordan James (10.3 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Zakai Zeigler (8.8 points, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals).
Tennessee also is counting on increased production from forward Olivier Nkamhoua (8.6 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Plavsic (4.2 points, 4.0 rebounds) after leading scorer Kennedy Chandler (13.9 ppg) was selected in the second round of the NBA draft.
“We think we have more quality depth than we’ve had in a long time,” Barnes said.
Tennessee Tech features 13 newcomers, giving the Golden Eagles a decidedly different team than the one that went 11-21 overall and 7-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference last season.
“Sometimes when people think things are falling apart, they are falling into place,” Tennessee Tech coach John Pelphrey said at OVC Media Day. “We have embraced the new way of doing things in college basketball. Sometimes in order to have progress, you have got to have change.”
Guard Diante Wood, who averaged 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game last season, is the team’s top returning player. He recorded seven rebounds, six assists and four points in an 80-69 exhibition win over visiting Cumberland on Oct. 27.
Guard Brett Thompson, a transfer from Mineral Area Community College in Missouri, scored a team-high 17 points, while Ty Perry, a graduate transfer from Lafayette, added 13 points and three assists. Guard Grant Slatten, who arrived from Ole Miss, finished with seven points.
“We have made progress and we want to make more,” Pelphrey said. “We have a competitive group of guys who value leadership and that’s a great place to start.”
-Field Level Media