No. 10 Texas set to face one of the country’s best defenses Saturday at No. 4 Tennessee

Payne Williams, Sports Desk Editor

No. 10 Texas travels to Knoxville on Saturday to face No. 4 Tennessee in the 10th annual and final SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Texas acting head coach Rodney Terry and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes face each other for the first time as head coaches. Terry served under Barnes for nine seasons in Austin, but now both coaches have teams of their own and are hopeful for a long run in March.

“Coach Barnes and I are like family,” Terry said on Thursday. “But I know (Barnes) is highly competitive, I’m competitive, and once the ball is thrown in there, he’ll be trying to coach his team to a win, and I’ll be trying to coach my team to a win.”

The Longhorns face their first top-5 team since routing then-No. 2 Gonzaga in November, but since then, they have recorded three losses including a high-scoring defeat to current No. 5 Kansas State. 

Now with another chance to knock off a top-5 opponent, Texas has a chance to vault its name further into the hat of title contenders, facing its former head coach Rick Barnes in a hostile road environment.

“It’ll be an incredible resume game for ourselves if we’re able to go and get (a win),” Terry said.

If the Longhorns want to compete with Barnes’ squad, rebounding will be critical. Texas has been averaging 35.8 rebounds per game while the Volunteers post an average of 39.8 rebounds per game.

Senior forward Timmy Allen, freshman forward Dillon Mitchell and graduate student forward Brock Cunningham are Texas’ leading rebounders and will have their work cut out for them to not only flip the floor into transition, where the Longhorns thrive, but to give its offense extra possessions, leading to more scoring opportunities and more points.

Extra possessions may prove crucial for Texas as they face one of the stingiest defenses in men’s college basketball. The Volunteers allow the fewest points per 100 possessions (83.7) in basketball, according to KenPom, and they’re holding opponents to 53.7 points per game.

“Rick’s teams always rebound the ball well,” Terry said. “There’s not much (the Volunteers) don’t do at a very efficient level from a defensive standpoint. They’re really elite at what they do on that end of the floor.”

Terry cited Texas’ experience against other top defenses and compared Tennessee’s to others in the Big 12, including the Cyclones, who took down the Longhorns less than two weeks ago.

“We have a lot of teams in our league who are really good defensively as well,” Terry said. “Iowa State will probably be comparable to what we’re about to face with Tennessee.”

However, the offensive comparison leans the Longhorns’ way.

Texas, behind one of the country’s best backcourt duos of sophomore guard Tyrese Hunter and graduate student guard Marcus Carr, is averaging 80 points per game compared to Tennessee’s 76.

Carr, who leads the Longhorns in points and assists on a per-game basis, and Hunter will match up against guards senior Santiago Vescovi and sophomore Zakai Zeigler who are both active defensively and average two steals per game.

The Longhorns have a full plate ahead of them on Saturday, and while they have proven their ability to compete from behind, Tennessee presents a new challenge defensively.