6 things to know about Florida Atlantic's next NCAA Tournament opponent: Tennessee
Florida Atlantic’s historic men’s basketball team will take center stage in the college basketball world on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
No. 9 seed FAU (33-3) will face the No. 4 seed Tennessee Volunteers (25-10) in the Sweet Sixteen as the Owls look to extend the greatest season in school history. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m.
In a fateful coincidence, The Palm Beach Post happens to employ a lifelong follower of Tennessee basketball as an editor of its sports department.
Here are six key things to know about Florida Atlantic’s next opponent:
Tennessee plays "in the mud"
After Sunday’s win over Fairleigh Dickinson, FAU head coach Dusty May said the Owls’ would study Australian rules rugby to prepare for Tennessee’s physical defensive style.
The Vols prefer to describe it as dragging opponents “into the mud.”
Tennessee touts the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense, limiting opponents to 57.8 points per game this season. In the second round, Tennessee held Duke to just 52 points – the fewest ever by a Blue Devils team in an NCAA Tournament game.
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First Team All-SEC guard Santiago Vescovi and Jahmai Mashack will likely draw the task of guarding FAU star guards Alijah Martin and Johnell Davis.
Uros Plavsic, a 7-foot-1 Serbian center, takes on an unofficial role as “enforcer” for the Vols. He can be counted on to apply hard fouls early to set the tone against FAU center Vladislav Goldin.
The Vols have plenty more interior size with Jonas Aidoo (6-11), Tobe Awaka (6-8), Olivier Nkamhoua (6-9) and Julian Phillips (6-8) rotating constantly. Josiah Jordan-James (6-6), a former five-star prospect, is a versatile veteran capable of guarding all five positions.
Tennessee stays in control when it can hold opponents to fewer than 60 points.
If the Vols are comfortable vs. the Owls, look for them to force multiple scoreless stretches of 4, 5, 6 minutes … or more.
Vols without star guard Zakai Zeigler
Tennessee lost a key player from its starting lineup when starting point guard Zakai Zeigler suffered a torn ACL in February.
Zeigler, a speedy 5-9 sophomore from Long Island, has become a motivating presence for teammates who rallied to return their injured teammate to Madison Square Garden in his hometown.
The on-court impact of Zeigler’s injury has been profound, however.
Tennessee lacks a true point guard without Zeigler and ballhandling duties have fallen to Vescovi, Mashack and senior transfer Tyreke Key.
Vescovi, the team’s leading 3-point shooter, is easily the most comfortable at point guard from that bunch, so he carries a heavy burden to stay out of foul trouble.
If the Owls can stick Vescovi with a couple early fouls, expect Barnes to sit Vescovi until the second half, which would be a major win for FAU.
How did Tennessee reach the Sweet Sixteen?
The Vols survived a late second-half rally to beat No. 13 seed Louisiana 58-55 in the opening round before pummeling No. 5 seed Duke 65-52 in the second round in the Orlando regional.
The results fit a common perception that Tennessee plays to the level of its opponents.
Whether due to style of play or occasional offensive struggles, the same group that beat No. 1 seeds like Alabama and Kansas also lost to significantly weaker foes like Vanderbilt, Florida and Colorado.
Tennessee tormented by the Sweet Sixteen
The Volunteers have a nightmarish 1-7 record in the Sweet Sixteen all-time.
Most recently, Tennessee lost to Purdue 99-94 in overtime in 2019, eliminating a 31-win team in Barnes’ only Sweet Sixteen appearance with the Volunteers.
Tennessee’s only Sweet Sixteen victory came in 2010 when former head coach Bruce Pearl led the Vols to a 76-73 win over an Ohio State team featuring Evan Turner.
The Vols lost to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State in the Elite Eight and have never reached the Final Four.
Rick Barnes vs. FAU with Tennessee
Tennessee and Florida Atlantic have only faced once in men’s basketball: The Vols won 81-62 on Dec. 16, 2015 in Knoxville.
Head coach Rick Barnes was in his first season leading the Vols, who finished 15-19 and missed the NCAA Tournament.
The Owls were abysmal in 2015-16 under second-year head coach Michael Curry. FAU finished 9-20 overall and last in Conference USA with a 2-16 league mark.
FAU never faced Barnes in 17 seasons as University of Texas head coach (1998-2015).
Tennessee athletic director Danny White and Florida Atlantic athletic director Brian White will bring a sibling rivalry to Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen contest.
Brian White has served as the FAU athletic director since 2018 while Danny White left UCF in 2021 to lead the Tennessee athletic department.
The brothers' men's basketball programs have faced off once before: FAU defeated UCF 80-79 in Boca Raton on Nov. 11, 2018.
Eric J. Wallace is deputy sports editor of The Palm Beach Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: FAU basketball: 6 key factors for Owls vs. Tennessee in Sweet Sixteen