This is “weird week” in the Tennessee basketball season.
Rick Barnes, from time to time, has praised enthusiastic fans for making a lot of noise at Food City Center and helping the Volunteers win big games. He is rewarding them by bringing Georgia Southern to town for a featured Tuesday evening clash.
There must be some other reason to play such a foe, Sun Belt Conference survivor, 0-9 record, in mid-December. Perhaps the Eagles are to provide development time for Freddie Dillone, Cameron Carr, JP Estrella and Cade Phillips. They didn’t play against Illinois.
For some other strange reason, this Georgia Southern visit has not been announced as a sellout. The Eagles have a genuine attraction, muscular guard Malik Tidwell (5-11 and 202), shaped like a football running back.
He is playing for his fifth college in five years. That may be a world record.
He is from Chicago and Prolific Prep in Napa, California. He has been a shooter. This man in motion has also been around:
- Missouri State of West Plains.
- Morton College, Cicero, Illinois.
- Bryant & Stratton, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
- Bluefield (W. Va.) State.
That school says Malik “exploded” for 39 points against Salem. He has not yet blown up for Georgia Southern but Tidwell can score. Alas, he has missed a couple of games with an apparent leg injury. Hopefully, he is recovering.
A lot of semi-obscure athletes allow doubt to creep in about their ability. Tidwell says he experienced that but always had the drive to keep on keeping on.
“When it looks like it’s not going to happen, you have to listen to that small thought that tells you to keep going. You need to have faith, one percent, two percent, because one call can change your life. That’s what it was like for me. I always had confidence in myself to make it and I did.”
Georgia Southern is just half of weird week. The other half is Tennessee against North Carolina State in San Antonio in the middle of Saturday night.
To rationalize that one, Barnes found a couple of small connections. Forward D.J. Burns redshirted at Tennessee during the 2018-19 season. He transferred to Winthrop and moved on up to the Wolfpack.
Tennessee associate head coach Justin Gainey played at N.C. State from 1996-2000.
The San Antonio adventure is undoubtedly a money grab. A company called Position Sports, in a financial partnership with the Naismith Hall of Fame, has been or will be staging ceremonial double-headers here and there – Las Vegas, Charlotte, Toronto, San Antonio and Phoenix.
What? You’ve never heard of Position Sports? It is “a premium event production and brand marketing firm that specializes in event operations, activation development, media relations and digital engagement,” whatever that is.
Tipoff for the Vols and Wolfpack will be 10 p.m. because Baylor and Miami women play a preliminary game. I am aware they are not going to like me calling their clash a prelim but it is.
Not incidentally, video recorders were invented for games starting at 10 at night.
The Tennessee-Illinois game on Saturday past started at noon. The Vols had to out-tough a tough foe to win that one. Barnes contributed. The Illini kept clogging routes on Tennessee set plays so the coach switched to an isolation attack featuring Dalton Knecht.
He scored 21, 13 in the second half when Tennessee surged from five behind to 12 ahead.
Santiago Vescovi was outstanding (12 points, excellent shooting, team-leading nine rebounds, three assists).
Barnes said: “Maybe the most focused our guys have been in the details of our scouting report all year. I thought they were really, really locked in in terms of knowing what we had to do on the defensive end.”
Defense did make a difference. Illinois shot 35.4 percent and 25 percent from long range. Tennessee won the rebound battle, 43-34.
“Tennessee whooped our butt on the glass in the second half,” said coach Brad Underwood.
Barnes, being more refined, said: “We rebounded the ball against an outstanding rebounding team. They really are relentless … it’s a nice win against a team that’s going to win a lot of games this year … they’re as good as anybody that we’ve played up to this point. Really great effort from our guys.”
Tennessee hit 52 percent in the second half. Absolute unselfishness resulted in 21 assists.
Vescovi looked a lot like the Vescovi of old. He delivered defense with a passion. He handled the ball under duress and didn’t have a turnover.
“He’s been such a big part of who we have been the last couple years,” said Barnes. “And to see him playing the way he did … He’s had a tough semester. He lost his grandmother, that’s hard, and he would say it’s been hard academically … he’s serious about getting done what he wants to get done here.”
Play of the game was the handiwork of Zakai Zeigler. The gritty point guard flicked the ball away from an Illinois player and dived after the prize. From a prone position, he shoveled the ball fast forward to Josiah-Jordan James for a dunk – and looked back at the victim of his treachery to be sure he knew how New York guys play basketball.
The crowd cheered.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmailcom