When No. 15 Kansas travels to No. 18 Tennessee on Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, the game will feature two teams that just a couple of weeks ago had their sights set on deep runs into the NCAA Tournament.
But the month of January has not been kind to the Jayhawks (11-5) or the Volunteers (11-3) and both will be looking to get back to consistently winning ways and reconnected with big dreams starting with Saturday’s game in Knoxville.
As Kansas’ David McCormack said after his team ended a three-game losing streak by eking out a 59-51 over TCU on Thursday, “It’s a new season. We’re starting off 1-0.”
Both teams will take to the floor still sporting top-25 rankings, but earlier in the month, both could be found well inside the top 10. And, the Jayhawks, after Week 6 of the season, were ranked third in the nation.
Starting with a 75-70 loss to Oklahoma State on Jan. 12, Kansas lost three in a row. All on the road, yes, but still losses.
The Jayhawks (5-4 Big 12) returned home to Lawrence on Thursday night needing a win. They got it — 59-51 over TCU — but their play was less than spectacular as they trailed at intermission and needed a big second half to get the win.
Afterward, a relieved coach Bill Self said, “We’ll take it. We’ll take it. The guys are feeling the pressure of losing three in a row. Guys are amped up. I’m not going to apologize for winning by eight at home. Still, we would have liked to have played better.”
Kansas is led in scoring this year by Ochai Agbaji, who is averaging 14.4 points per game. Jalen Wilson (12.3) and McCormack (11.7 and 5.6 rebounds) are also averaging in double figures. As a team, the Jayhawks are averaging 74.3 points per outing.
Tennessee, too, is coming off a narrow slump-busting win as it beat Mississippi State 56-53 on Tuesday to improve to 5-3 in SEC play.
Vols coach Rick Barnes felt much like Self after that home win.
“I think it’s a good one,” said Barnes, whose team had lost its previous two – both SEC matchups vs. Florida and Missouri. “And I think you need them, and I think we are going to be in them (close games). We tell our guys every night, even when we win by nine or 10 points, or lose a game, we tell them a nine-point game is only three possessions.”
The Vols needed two free throws by Santiago Vescovi with 12 seconds to go to seal the very important win.
“I told my guys tonight I don’t care how we do it, but we got to find a way to win this game,” Barnes said.
Tennessee got some good news before the Mississippi State game when it learned that Jaden Springer, who had missed the two losses with an ankle injury would play. Spring responded with nine points, five assists and four rebounds.
“We needed him and we’re proud of him,” Barnes said.
The Vols have been led this year by John Fulkerson (11.2 points, six rebounds), Victor Bailey Jr. (10.9 points) and Springer (9.9). Then there’s Yves Pons, whose workman-like stats include 8.6 points, 4.8 boards and an amazing 27 blocked shots on the year.
But the team’s strength this year has been a defense that gives up just 59.3 points per game.
Self said he didn’t know much about the Vols, but he did know that “they are a great defensive team. We are going to have to play better offensively.”
He also knows the Big 12 did him no favors by scheduling the non-conference Tennessee game just two days after the TCU game.
“We want to win this game (vs. the Vols) desperately,” Self said. “But winning (vs. TCU) and winning on Tuesday (in a Big 12 game against intra-state rival Kansas State) is far more important.”
–Field Level Media