This was supposed to be about Gonzaga. When I arrived in Phoenix on Sunday to watch the no. 1 Bulldogs play no. 7 Tennessee, I had a distinct plan in place: Watch a great game between two Final Four contenders and be blown away by the skill of Gonzaga’s roster and how seamlessly their pieces weave together to create an unstoppable offense. And when the Zags inevitably got their second top-10 win of the season, I was going to write an article marveling at the machine that Mark Few has built in Spokane and wonder whether this might be his best team yet. I was even going to explore the possibility of the Zags running the table, which seemed doable given that the toughest part of their schedule would be behind them and that Killian Tillie is set to return from ankle surgery in the next few weeks. The plan made perfect sense, and for 34 minutes it was all coming together exactly as I envisioned. But then Admiral Schofield caught fire, and when the final buzzer sounded, the Vols had won 76-73.
Before I dive too far into things, let me first say that if you love college basketball and you have the opportunity to see Tennessee play in person this season, move heaven and earth to do so and thank me later. The Vols have essentially the same roster as last year, which is something I mention only to say that I have watched this group play on TV many times in the past 13 months. I knew they were physical and played tough defense, and that Schofield and Grant Williams were the Dean Portman and Fulton Reed of college basketball. But seeing them work their magic up close was an absolute delight. I know this isn’t going to make any sense considering Gonzaga held the lead for the better part of the second half, but it felt like Tennessee was in control of the entire game just from the standpoint that Williams and Schofield dictated their terms throughout. The Vols weren’t always playing the best basketball, but they were always playing their brand of basketball, and it was clearly wearing down the Zags even when the scoreboard didn’t reflect it.
Which brings me to what is going to make Tennessee so successful this season and a nightmare to play in March: There are no off-nights when it comes to size, strength, and physicality. As long as Williams and Schofield are on the court together, Tennessee’s opponents will have to contend with two physically superior players relentlessly beating the hell out of them. It’s one thing to watch on TV as Williams and Schofield fight for position on both ends of the floor and attack every rebound like their lives depend on it. But being able to see 6-foot-7 and 236 pounds of muscle (Williams) play alongside 6-foot-6 and 241 pounds of even more muscle (Schofield), being able to hear opponents grunt as they try to move past those two brick walls, and watching as Rui Hachimura walked to Gonzaga’s bench during timeouts with a look on his face that said “I can’t believe I still have to endure 12 more minutes of this bullshit” was enough to make me want to take a three-hour ice bath to recover.
What really makes Schofield, a senior, and Williams, a junior, so special is that they are so physically overwhelming that it’s easy to forget how skilled and smart they are. It’s almost like they want opponents to think that they’re just a couple of massive dudes who sumo wrestle in the paint and can’t do much else, so when they start pushing guys around, their opponents become hell-bent on figuring out a way to push back with just as much force. And it’s in these moments—when the other team is consumed with winning the physical battle instead of making the best basketball play—that Tennessee really shines. When Schofield starts making it rain from the 3-point line, when Williams wreaks havoc with his playmaking from the high post, and when the Vols whip the ball around to find the open man whenever a double team comes, opponents are left confused as to what the hell they’re supposed to do to slow these guys down. Just think about this for a second: Williams has been the second-best player in the nation this season behind Duke’s Zion Williamson. But in addition to Williams, Tennessee has a slightly altered version of the forward in Schofield, who plays more on the perimeter, shoots more 3s, and has the capacity to drop 30 on the no. 1 team in the country. How the hell is this possible?
Unless I had a team full of future NBA players, I’d have no idea how to even begin building a game plan to beat Tennessee. I guess I’d just cross my fingers that the Vols went cold from the outside and hope that Williams and Schofield’s physicality led to foul trouble (both of which happened against Kansas in Tennessee’s only loss of the season). But even then, the Vols are far from a two-man show. Junior point guard Jordan Bone has been streaky with his jump shot but still finds ways to impact every game, like when he went 2-13 from the field against Gonzaga but still had nine assists and helped keep Josh Perkins scoreless. Senior center Kyle Alexander is a great anchor for the Tennessee defense and provides enough offense to keep defenses honest. Yves Pons is an explosive and versatile defender who has brought a ton of energy to Tennessee’s starting lineup since Rick Barnes gave him Jordan Bowden’s spot, which is proving to be a stroke of genius given how great Bowden has been off the bench (averaging 10.7 points in three games as the Vols’ sixth man). If the version of John Fulkerson that gave Barnes good minutes against Gonzaga shows up more often than the version that committed four fouls and three turnovers in eight minutes against Kansas (and if Lamonte Turner can return from a shoulder injury), there’s no telling how good Tennessee can be.
More importantly, there’s no telling how fun Tennessee can be. I don’t think it’s an overreaction to say that I’ll remember Sunday’s game for a very long time, and not just because the no. 1 team in the country lost. It feels like in order for the general public to think a college basketball game is great, it must either happen in the NCAA tournament or essentially feel like an NBA game with less talent. So when something like Sunday comes along that is both unapologetically a college basketball game and undeniably great, it’s hard not to get excited. I loved that both teams were methodical with their approaches on offense and worked the ball to find the best shot. I loved that the Hachimura vs. Williams matchup might have been the first great high-post battle that’s happened at any level of basketball in over a decade. I loved that guys were asking to be subbed out because they were so gassed from giving it their all. I loved that players went after rebounds like the ball was the holy grail, and I loved that fans from both teams were losing their shit every time the refs made a call that they didn’t like. Best of all, we were still treated to a game with plenty of scoring, shit-talking, plays at the rim, lead changes, and huge shots. It was the college basketball game of the season so far, and while Gonzaga provided their share of great plays and helped elevate the stakes, the vibe of the game would have taken a completely different form without Tennessee.
I recently wrote about how Michigan might be the perfect college basketball team because the Wolverines have figured out a way to dominate in spite of their flaws. I might have to rethink that statement. As a person raised on old-school Big Ten basketball, this Tennessee team is almost exactly what I think of when I think of the quintessential college basketball team. The Vols treat defense as an opportunity instead of a formality, they are among the best rebounders in the country, they’re tied for second in assists per game, they have zero freshmen and three sophomores in their nine-man rotation, and the only game they’ve lost this season was in overtime to the team currently ranked no. 1 in the AP poll. Maybe I’m just a prisoner of the moment and fall in love with whatever team that impressed me most recently, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing in this case. College basketball needs more teams like Michigan and Tennessee, who can succeed with an old-school approach without relying on bush league tactics or winning ugly. We need more teams that can eschew the pace-and-space movement and still be a ton of fun to watch, not because pace-and-space is bad, but because diversity is what makes this sport so great.
As much fun as Sunday’s game was, though, the best part was everything that transpired after the final buzzer sounded, beginning with Schofield running into the stands to hug his father and Williams following right behind him. When people complain about one-and-done culture ruining college basketball, it’s not always because we hate the thought of guys getting paid or because we’re jealous that Duke and Kentucky get all the best players. It’s because moments like this are when the sport is at its best and they are impossible to artificially create. There are no shortcuts to achieving the unbridled joy felt by a 3-star recruit who worked his ass off for four years and, upon reaching the pinnacle of his basketball life, just wants to hug his dad who surprised him by showing up at the game. There are no shortcuts in building the kind of love and respect that Schofield, Williams, and Barnes have for one another. Just watch what happened in the postgame press conference, when Barnes cut off a reporter asking about how Schofield and Williams compare to the first-round picks that Barnes coached at Texas.
That’s the kind of stuff that will always keep me coming back to college basketball. Do you have any idea how much trust all three of those guys have put in one another these past three years? Schofield committed to Tennessee under a different coaching regime yet trusted Barnes—a man who was fired from his previous job and hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in a decade—enough to have spent four years in Knoxville. Williams trusted that Barnes wouldn’t try to make him the same type of player as Schofield, then trusted Schofield to not get a bruised ego when a kid one year younger than him put up better numbers and started raking in individual awards. And all the while, Barnes trusted that the path to resurrecting his career ran through two 3-star recruits who were getting offers from Wofford and Appalachian State.
When he eventually came back down to the court after hugging his father, Schofield did an interview with ESPN’s Sean Farnham and said, “One of the reasons I came back this year is I told Coach that I wanted to be one of his favorite players that he ever coached. That’s one of my biggest goals, and also being a great leader for this team. It wasn’t scoring 20 points, it wasn’t scoring 30 points, or getting 10 rebounds. It was just being coach’s favorite player. And I think tonight I did that.”
Schofield then flashed a massive smile and eventually made his way back to the locker room to celebrate with his teammates. When he got there, the same coach whose respect he had just publicly vied for stood in front of the entire team and got choked up as he said, “When that shot went in, I promise you I put my head down and all I could imagine was all of the time you were in the gym.” Barnes proceeded to bear-hug Schofield and reiterated that he knew Schofield’s game-winner was going in based solely on knowing how hard he has been working the last four years.
“When that shot went in, all I could imagine was all the time you put in the gym.”— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 9, 2018
Hard work pays off. pic.twitter.com/sfhkgxbflZ
I’m not going to kill my credibility and say that Tennessee is a perfect college basketball team less than two weeks after saying the same thing about a different team. But I have no problem saying that it’s damn near impossible to root against these guys.