Head Coach Bruce Pearl has assembled another challenging and exciting schedule for his Tennessee basketball team. His young team will be tested early and often this year, and will compete against top teams from all over the country.
Below, I have listed the Vols’ ten biggest games of the 2008-2009 season, with the caveat that no opponent is listed more than once. The list features all the traditional rivalries, as well as match-ups against each team that played in last year’s National Championship Game.
10. Tennessee at Temple (December 13, 2008)
The Vols’ trip to Philadelphia is their first true road game against a potential NCAA Tournament team. A trip to Temple is never easy, given the Owls fundamental play and defensive excellence. Temple also returns leading scorer Dionte Christmas.
Tennessee has to be careful not to overlook this game, given their tilt with Marquette in the SEC/Big East Challenge three days later. The game also comes after a 10-day layoff.
9. Tennessee VS Gonzaga (January 7, 2009)
Tennessee will again play America’s top mid-major, this time in their final match-up of the traditional non-conference season.
Expect this one to be entertaining, as Gonzaga always fields a very competitive team. Forward Austin Daye and guard Steven Gray form a dangerous combination that will force the Vols to play hard for 40 minutes.
8. Tennessee at Vanderbilt (January 20, 2009)
The Vols were never quite the same team after losing their No. 1 ranking in Nashville last season. This year’s match-up comes much earlier in the conference season, and if Tennessee can win this game they could get off to a very good start in the SEC East, as only two of their first six conference games are on the road and the other comes at Georgia.
Vanderbilt is not as threatening of a team as they were last year, as star shooter Shan Foster has graduated. This is a rivalry game, however, so expect a fight from the Commodores.
7. Tennessee VS Marquette, SEC/Big East Challenge (December 16, 2008)
The Vols might get Marquette at the right time, as this early-season matchup will find the Golden Eagles still trying to adapt to new coach Buzz Williams.
This is the first Tennessee is competing in the SEC/Big East Challenge, which began last season. As the conference’s newest frontrunner, it is important that the represent the league well against a team that is probably not one of the top-four in the Big East.
6. Old Spice Classic (November 27-30, 2008)
The Vols open against Siena in a tournament that features elite teams such as Georgetown and Michigan State. Tennessee has yet to win an early-season tournament under Bruce Pearl, losing to Butler in the semi-finals of the Preseason NIT in 2006 and to Texas in the Guardians Classic final in 2007.
One intriguing possibility is a match-up against Gonzaga in the finals, which would mean that the teams would play twice in 40 days. A re-match of the 2006 NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State is also a possibility in the semi-finals.
5. Tennessee at Arkansas (February 4, 2009)
The Vols’ trip to Fayetville is definitely their toughest game against an SEC West opponent this season. The Razorbacks, despite graduating seven seniors, are still expected to be a formidable team this season, as they have brought in several top recruits.
Tennessee will of course remember their loss to Arkansas in the semi-finals of the 2008 SEC Tournament, and will be looking to exact revenge in this contest.
4. Tennessee at Florida (March 1, 2009)
The Vols’ biggest end-of-the-season test comes against Billy Donovan’s young Gator club. Star forward Marrese Speights may have left for the NBA, but Nick Calathes stayed in school and could give the Tennessee defense fits.
Last year, the Gators jumped out to early leads against the Vols both times the two teams met, but Tennessee simply ran Florida off the floor at the end of the game. Now that the Gators are a year older, Tennessee can’t afford to spot them more leads.
3. Tennessee VS Kentucky (January 13, 2009)
This classic rivalry begins early this year, as the first match-up takes place in Thompson-Boling Arena only two games into the conference season. Even in a down year last season, Kentucky managed to beat the Vols in one match-up and take them down to the wire in the other.
This is Tennessee’s first big rivalry game since the departure of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, so it will be interesting to see who comes up big in the clutch. This game may be the first true test of Tyler Smith’s leadership ability.
2. Tennessee at Kansas (January 3, 2009)
They Jayhawks lost much of their core from last season’s National Championship team—Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, and Mario Chalmers are all now NBA players—but a match-up with the defending champs is always a big deal.
This could be a big test for the Vols’ frontline, led by the ever-improving Wayne Chism. Kansas always has a pretty strong frontcourt, and expect next season to be no exception. Throw in a tough road atmosphere, and this game is a tough end to the non-conference season for Tennessee.
1. Tennessee VS Memphis (January 24, 2009)
It’s tough to top a game against the defending national champs, but the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry is bigger than it’s ever been right now. This won’t be another No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up, but expect another close, hard-fought game as Memphis looks to get some revenge for last year’s Tennessee triumph.
This game will feature a match-up between what could be the nation’s two best freshman shooting guards, as the Vols’ Scotty Hopson will go head-to-head with the Tigers’ Tyreke Evans.