Duke, Tennessee set for physical matchup at Amway Center with trip to Sweet 16 as reward
A year ago Tennessee, then a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament, won its first-round matchup against No. 14 Longwood and had the Volunteers aiming to advance to the Sweet 16.
Instead, the Vols were upset in the round of 32 by No. 11 Michigan 76-68 and the season ended sooner than expected for Rick Barnes’ squad.
Tennessee’s Josiah-Jordan James explained how last year’s loss has fueled this season’s squad to make sure the Volunteers don’t miss out on the second weekend of March Madness for a consecutive tournament.
“It’s driven us a whole lot,” the senior guard said Friday. “We were able to get a taste of it with the victory over Longwood. We were excited and we were happy.
“A couple of days later we played a really tough Michigan team and we just remember that feeling of defeat, the hurt and the pain we had.”
The Volunteers will battle for a spot in the Sweet 16 against No. 5 Duke on Saturday (2:40 p.m. CBS), and James is aware that it won’t be easy to take down the Blue Devils, who’ve won 10 straight games.
“We know that we’re going to have to go into a dogfight less than 24 hours from now to not have that feeling,” he said. “We’ve just got to play together and play our game.”
Although Tennessee is once again facing a weaker seed that’s currently playing better than the number listed next to the team’s name, James said his team doesn’t take that into account.
“We don’t really pay attention to seeds,” he said. “We know Duke is a really talented team — one of the more talented teams we faced, if not the most talented. We’ve got to play together.”
The Blue Devils, who enter Saturday’s matchup as slight favorites after beating No. 12 Oral Roberts by 23 points in the opening round, understand Tennessee is talented in its own right, too.
The Volunteers slipped past No. 13 Louisiana 58-55 late Thursday night.
“They’ve been battle-tested,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “They’re experienced. They have great size. They’re one of the best rebounding teams and they’re one of the best defending teams.”
Tennessee’s defense ranks third in the country in scoring defense by limiting opponents to 57.9 points per contest. The Volunteers have outrebounded opponents by an average margin of 6, which is No. 10 nationally.
Duke freshman forward Mark Mitchell credited Tennessee’s physicality as one reason why the Volunteers are strong on both ends of the court.
Mitchell said Duke aims to keep Tennessee out of the paint as much as possible while focusing on grabbing rebounds.
Duke is 25-4 when beating opponents on the boards.
“We know they love to live in the paint; kind of similar to us,” Mitchell said. “We know they love to crash the glass and pack the paint. They have some big guys down there, but if we play our defense, we’ll be good.”
Duke won’t be the first physical team Tennessee has had to battle this year. Duke 6-foot-10 center Ryan Young mentioned Purdue and center Zach Edey as one example.
“Edey is a pretty unique type of player,” Young said. “You have to be physical and throw different looks at him.
“Then across the board in the ACC, we’ve gotten some good looks at very physical teams. Virginia is one that takes a lot of pride in the way they play defense and how physical they are in the interior. We’ve had a good different set of looks.”
Both sides know Saturday’s matchup likely won’t be a walk in the park for either team.
“We feel it’s a great challenge,” Scheyer said. “In this game, the round of 32 is never an easy game. It’s obviously not going to be that way.”
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