Sunday afternoon gave us another early-season instant classic, as No. 7 Tennessee ended Gonzaga’s unbeaten run and likely knocked them out of the No. 1 spot in the polls with a thrilling, 76-73 win in Phoenix.
In a back-and-forth affair that featured some unbelievably athletic plays and some high-level shot-making coming from unexpected sources, the Vols set themselves up as the early favorite in the SEC and made a statement to the rest of the college basketball world that they are for real.
There is a lot to take away from this game.
Let’s dive into it:
1. THE WORLD HAS BEEN INTRODUCED TO ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD
Schofield had a career-high 30 points on Sunday afternoon. He scored 25 of those 30 points in the second, including the final 11 points of the game for the Vols. His three with 22.1 seconds left was the game-winner. Those points were made all the more important because Tennessee was without Lamonte Turner for this game and lost Grant Williams with three minutes left to his fourth foul of the game.
There is so much to like about the way that Schofield plays, and like Grant Williams, he is the guy that sets the tone for Tennessee. He’s an undersized wing that can defend up and down, he can make threes and there isn’t a possession that goes by where Schofield does anything other than play his tail off. Tennessee has proven themselves to be one of the best programs in the country at developing talent, but that’s something that is helped by the fact that the two best players on the roster — Schofield and Williams — also happen to be the two hardest workers.
The other thing that this performance does is shoot Schofield up NBA draft boards. Playing against Gonzaga means that there are going to be plenty of NBA scouts with their eyes on the game, and there should be little doubt that playing like this is going to garner Schofield — who was already a potential second round pick — more attention. He does all the things that we look for out of a role-playing wing in the NBA. He shoots it. He’s versatile defensively. He plays hard. He knows that, at his core, he’s a role player.
What else are you looking for?
2. TENNESSEE CAN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE
There is a clear-cut top tier in college basketball this season.
Duke is part of that group. Gonzaga, too. Michigan probably belongs in that conversation, as does Virginia. Kansas is in the mix. Nevada is in the mix. And, yes, Tennessee belongs there as well.
The reason for that is Tennessee just doesn’t have many holes. If they need to play big, they can put Kyle Alexander out there with Williams and Schofield and they have enough size to matchup with anyone. If they need to play small, they can put Lamonte Turner in the backcourt with Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden. If they want to go with a switchable lineup, they can play Yves Pons with Williams and Schofield. They have good guards. They can make threes. They have a guy in Williams that can score on the block and who Kansas head coach Bill Self said could end up being the best player that the Jayhawks face all season long.
That makes them a very, very dangerous basketball team.
3. BRANDON CLARKE IS GONZAGA’S BEST PLAYER
Rui Hachimura is the guy that gets all the plaudits, and it’s certainly deserved. He’s the leading scorer for the No. 1 team in the country. He is the guy that made the game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington. He’s a future lottery pick and a player that is an icon in his home country of Japan. He deserves all the recognition that he gets, and going for 21 points and eight boards on Sunday doesn’t change that fact.
That said, Clarke is the best player for the Zags for the simply fact that he is arguably the best defensive player in the country. He’s an unbelievable athlete and rim protector that can switch onto smaller defenders and jumps passing lanes. He’s going to be a first round pick in the NBA because of it.
He also averages 16.4 points and 8.2 boards. On Sunday, he led Gonzaga with 21 points and nine boards. He had what may go down as the best block of the college basketball season:
The thing that makes Gonzaga so good is that picking their best player is like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream. They’re all good. Hachimura is an all-american. Zach Norvell Jr. makes more big shots that anyone in college basketball and will, by the end of the season, become known for what he does in the second half of games. Corey Kispert is an elite role player. Josh Perkins will finish among the league leaders in assists.
But for my money, Clarke is their best player.
4. SUNDAY SHOWED US WHY JOSH PERKINS IS A CONCERN FOR THE ZAGS
The irony, however, is that Clarke isn’t the most important player on Gonzaga.
That title belongs to Josh Perkins, the only point guard currently on Gonzaga’s roster and a guy that just so happens to have a reputation for being consistently inconsistent.
We saw the full Josh Perkins Experience on Sunday. He had a number of flashy assists, finishing with nine in total against just a single turnovers, but he was 0-for-6 from the floor, scoreless and nowhere to be found down the stretch when Gonzaga needed some big buckets.