Tennessee Volunteers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Pick & Prediction DECEMBER 9th 2023

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Tennessee’s tough early season continues Saturday, when the 17th-ranked Volunteers play yet another top Big Ten team.

The game against No. 20 Illinois (7-1) at Thompson Boling Arena marks the Volunteers’ third game against a Big Ten team in the first five weeks of the season. Tennessee (5-3) earned a 10-point win Nov. 10 at Wisconsin and suffered a four-point loss to Purdue on Nov. 21 at the Maui Invitational. The Volunteers’ tough early schedule also has included games against Kansas, North Carolina and Syracuse. The Illini come into Knoxville flying high after dominating Rutgers 76-58 at home and then beating No. 13 Florida Atlantic 98-89 on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. What does Tennessee coach Rick Barnes see in Illinois? “It’ll be interesting. They’re a hard-nosed, physical team,” Barnes said. “I know they’re going to play extremely hard. If you think about it, it’ll be our (fourth ranked) game in (nine) games. I still believe it’s going to help in the long run, but you’re talking about (the intensity level of) a conference game here in December.” Illinois coach Brad Underwood has helped instill that tenacity into his players. “I put this quote on the board before every game: ‘Know the thrill of an all-out effort,'” Underwood said. “Some nights it won’t be pretty. Some nights it’ll be mucked up. And that’s fine. I like our size, our athleticism and we’re collectively, as a team, becoming quite a bit tougher.” This is not to suggest the Illini and Volunteers aren’t supremely skilled. Illinois fifth-year wing Terrence Shannon Jr. scored a career-high 33 points — on just 14 shots from the floor — Tuesday against FAU. Shannon (21.6 ppg) also played lockdown defense on Final Four-proven guards Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin. In the offseason, Dalton Knecht transferred from Northern Colorado to Tennessee. On Nov. 29 at North Carolina, the 6-foot-6, 213-pound forward showed he can play against elite Division I opponents, piling up 37 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks. He tied the Dean E. Smith Center record for points by a visiting player. Knecht is averaging 19 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, but Barnes believes there’s even more in store as he becomes more efficient. He has told Knecht and his other players there’s no need to force the action. “Just play the right way,” Barnes said. “Just move the ball and get lost in the game. Do what you do well.” Tennessee, meanwhile, was encouraged by big man Jonas Aidoo’s career-high 17 points and eight rebounds Tuesday against George Mason. Between Aidoo and backup Tobe Awaka, the Vols got 28 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes. “We’ve talked about the team establishing an inside-out game as much as we can,” Barnes said. “We still haven’t had a great night yet where we shoot the ball from the perimeter the way we’re capable of.”

–Field Level Media

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