Heads Up, NYC: Tennessee Headed Your Way For Sweet Sixteen After Bringing Duke ‘Into The Mud’

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Prepare yourself New York City, your city is about to be infiltrated with a lot of orange. After handling Duke on Saturday, Tennessee is headed for Madison Square Garden and the Sweet-16.

Rick Barnes must have given one helluva pre-game speech, because the Vols came out playing like a team on a physical mission. Tennessee had a plan from the start, needing to win this game so an injured Zakai Zeigler could join them in his hometown of New York City. Well, mission accomplished for a team who has been through so much this season.

There’s been something about this team since the start of the season, but injuries and awkward play on the road has held them back. Talk of Rick Barnes not being able to get his team past the first weekend has taken over Knoxville sports talk for the past month. But on Saturday afternoon against Duke, none of it mattered.

Tennesse and Duke were entangled in a very physical game
Kyle Filipowski #30 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after an injury during the first half of the game against the Tennessee Volunteers in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Amway Center on March 18, 2023 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Tennessee’s Defense Comes Up Aces, Again

What started as a highly-physical matchup in the paint, with multiple elbows thrown, ended the same way. This time though, Tennessee was the team on the winning end. I have no doubt in my mind that Rick Barnes told his squad to go out there and make life miserable for Duke around the basket. This was exactly what Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua did, sending an early message to the Blue Devils with a couple of fouls.

“What we were saying before the game the whole time is we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game and see if they were ready for it,” Olivier Nkamhoua said postgame.

Not only did Tennessee play physical for forty minutes, they held Duke to its lowest point total in NCAA Tournament history.

Nkamhoua finished with 27 points, getting hot in the second half with thirteen straight points at one spot in the second half.

Tennessee's Josiah-Jordan James in NCAA Tournament
ORLANDO, FLORIDA – MARCH 18: Josiah-Jordan James #30 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts during the first half of the game against the Duke Blue Devils in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Amway Center on March 18, 2023 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

They were going to feel Tennessee, this was the game plan from the start. For a team like Duke that relied on young players to lead them, the Vols older group took advantage of the youngsters. If Tennessee can play like this in New York City, they could be playing in Houston the following weekend.

One of the biggest points of concern was how this Tennessee team would play defensively without Zakai Zeigler. After tearing his ACL recently, most pundits wrote this Vols team off, not seeing how they could make a run in March. But the Tennessee defense hadn’t fallen off since the season opener, playing with an intense tenacity.

Now, they get the chance to prove it again, inside the most legendary arena in the country. There has always been this pessimism for Tennessee fans, watching so many other talented teams fall short in the postseason. Could they actually beat a team like Duke, with the pressure on the line?

This is the Tennessee team that folks have seen in spurts this season, but they put Duke on notice at the start. There was one team that was ready to play hard-nosed playground basketball today, and it was certainly Tennessee. What’s next is up to them, but Olivier Nkamhoua knows it’s going to be a constant fight.

“We come to play for 40 minutes, and we’re going to bring them down to the mud for 40 minutes. It’s tough, and some guys can hang and some guys can’t.”

Written by Trey Wallace

Trey Wallace is the host of The Trey Wallace Podcast that focuses on a mixture of sports, culture, entertainment along with his perspective on everything from College Football to the College World Series.

Wallace has been covering college sports for 15 years, starting off while attending the University of South Alabama. He’s broken some of the biggest college stories including the Florida football “Credit Card Scandal” along with the firing of Jim McElwin and Kevin Sumlin. Wallace also broke one of the biggest stories in college football in 2020 around the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations against Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Wallace also appears on radio across seven different states breaking down that latest news in college sports.

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