When No. 21 Tennessee visits Cincinnati on Wednesday night, it will be a battle between two programs that have both come up short in some key games this season.
The Volunteers (7-2) lost by three points to Florida State and by four to Memphis. Their 51-47 defeat to Memphis on Saturday was especially painful because it ended Tennessee’s 31-game home winning streak, which had been the longest active run in the nation.
Among other reasons, the Volunteers would love to beat Cincinnati because it would give Tennessee coach Rick Barnes 700 wins, making him just the seventh active Division I coach to reach that milestone.
Barnes led Tennessee to a 31-6 record and a berth in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 last season, but the Volunteers graduated four starters, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati (6-4) has lost by one point at home to Colgate and in overtime against Bowling Green. The Bearcats also lost to Ohio State and to Xavier.
Cincinnati is led by senior guard Jarron Cumberland, who last season topped the American Athletic Conference with an 18.6 scoring average. He looked into bolting early for the NBA, but he decided to become Cincinnati’s first returning conference Player of the Year in almost two decades.
But the Bearcats, who made the NCAA Tournament the past nine years in a row under Mick Cronin, have a new coach this season, John Brannen, who came over from Northern Kentucky.
Under Brannen, Cumberland has slumped, with his scoring average down to 13.1. His 3-point shooting percentage has also dropped (from 38.8 to 26.2).
Cumberland has missed two games this season and lots of practice time due to toe, ankle and hip injuries.
“I have no idea,” Brannen said when asked about Cumberland’s slump.
Other Bearcats players to watch include junior guard Keith Williams (13.2 points), 7-foot-1 junior center Chris Vogt (12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds), senior guard Jaevin Cumberland (11.5 points); and senior forward Tre Scott (8.3 points and 9.3 rebounds).
Tennessee, which made it to the SEC Tournament final last season, starts all upperclassmen except for freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James, the Volunteers’ first McDonald’s All-American since Tobias Harris in 2010.
So far this season, James is averaging 7.0 points and has yet to live up to his hype.
Barnes, who turned down an offer to become UCLA’s coach after last season, mostly relies on a veteran crew that includes senior point guard Lamonte Turner (12.8 points), junior guard Yves Pons (11.9), senior forward Jordan Bowden (12.9) and senior forward John Fulkerson (11.1).
It’s a relatively small lineup, especially after 7-foot-1 center Uros Plavsic was ruled ineligible. He will have to sit out one year following his transfer from Arizona State.
The Volunteers are hoping for continued development from Pons, who spent this past summer competing for France’s Under-20 National Team.
In addition, Turner, who averaged 16.8 points in the 2019 postseason, leads the Vols in assists (7.1) and had the game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in last month’s 72-69 win over VCU.
“He’s very competitive,” Barnes said of Turner’s heroics. “That’s his biggest talent. He’s not afraid to make a play in a late-game situation.”
–Field Level Media