|No. 5 Tennessee welcomes back Turner vs. Louisville|
After a trio of warm-up games for each squad, No. 5 Tennessee and Louisville will square off Wednesday evening at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the first game of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
The other NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal is No. 2 Kansas vs. Marquette. The winners of each game and losers of each game will play each other on Friday. That could set up a top five matchup if both Tennessee and Kansas win.
"Everyone thinks it's going to (be) a Tennessee-Kansas final," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "It's not going to happen unless Tennessee and Kansas play good basketball. Marquette and Louisville are capable of winning that tournament. There are coaches that believe it, players that believe it; the team that wins is going to have to win it, no gimmes. No matter if there's a number in front of you or not, you've got to go play good basketball."
While both Tennessee and Louisville started the season 3-0, expectations are drastically different for each.
For Tennessee, the Vols enter Wednesday's game as the favorite and as one of the top teams in the nation. After making a surprise run to the SEC title last season, Tennessee returned nearly its entire lineup and is a potential Final Four contender.
Tennessee should be at full strength after Barnes confirmed that guard Lamonte Turner, the reigning Southeastern Conference sixth man of the year, will be back after dealing with a shoulder injury that's sidelined him the first three games. Turner averaged 10.9 points a season ago and shot 40 percent from 3-point range. The Vols lineup is led by star forwards Grant Williams, who is currently averaging 22 points per game, and Admiral Schofield, a constant threat to have a double-double.
"They have an identity," Mack said. "They're going to post it, they're going to offensive rebound it and on the defensive end they're going to try to rattle you."
As for Louisville, the Cardinals have a makeshift roster after a coaching change and NCAA sanctions forced first-year coach Chris Mack to reach into the transfer market to find starting point guard Christen Cunningham from Samford and backup Khwan Fore. After missing the tournament last season, the Cardinals are fielding a roster that includes just six players who were recruited to Louisville from high school.
"We're a work in progress like every team in November, and I don't say that to down our guys, it's just reality," Mack said. "We're going to be a heck of a lot better in December and we're going to be a heck of a lot better in January, and we're going to need to be if you look at our schedule."
The Cardinals may have the toughest schedule in the country with nine games scheduled against the preseason Top 10 teams in the country.
"Games like this give you an opportunity to play in the post-season," Mack said.
One key to watch is Louisville's remarkable ability to get to the foul line. The Cardinals are currently No. 1 in the nation in free throws attempted per game and No. 1 in free throws as a percentage of points (36 percent). Meanwhile Tennessee gets 22.2 percent of its points from the line, and the Vols had two players with four fouls and three more with three in its 66-53 win over Georgia Tech last Tuesday.
Wednesday's game will be the first-ever meeting between Barnes and Mack, and a win would send Barnes past legendary coach John Wooden on the all-time Division I wins list. They are currently tied at 664.