Tennessee sits on the lower end of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings but hopes to gain momentum when it plays Butler on Wednesday night in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament at Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
The Volunteers (2-1), No. 22 in the AP poll released Monday, are among the ranked teams in the eight-team tournament. Butler (3-1) enters the event trying to make its own mark following back-to-back wins over St. Francis, Pa., and The Citadel last week.
Both the Bulldogs and the Vols are 4-2 all-time in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Tennessee finished third in 2017 and fifth in 2013.
Butler’s lone loss this season came at Penn State last Monday as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Butler leads the all-time series against Tennessee 3-2.
The Vols, who are coming off a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season, bounced back from a loss to Colorado on Nov. 13 with a comfortable 81-50 win over Florida Gulf Coast three days later.
Josiah-Jordan James and Olivier Nkamhoua each scored 18 points to lead Tennessee, which held Florida Gulf Coast to 30.4 percent shooting from the floor.
James leads Tennessee in scoring this season with an average of 13.7 points per game. Despite not playing during the team’s preseason as he recovered from an offseason knee procedure, James is shooting 52 percent from the field, including 52.6 percent from 3-point range.
“I’m not surprised because he’s been around. Older guys can do that,” Barnes said. “They know what they need to do. But he’s been, obviously, a guy that needs to play on the floor, which he did most of the night. I think there’s not a better passer. But he gets up there and the way he can stretch a defense opens up a lot of things we did tonight.”
Sharp shooting has been one of the biggest factors in Butler’s early-season victories.
Against Saint Francis, the Bulldogs shot 70.4 percent from the field. They followed that by hitting 17 3-pointers against The Citadel despite having only nine players available. Butler is shooting 54.3 percent (25 for 46) from 3-point range over its past two games.
“We have shot the basketball so well all summer and all preseason, so it’s good to see those going in for us,” Butler coach Thad Matta said. “But also we’re taking better shots and the ball movement was good, and that has to be there at all times.”
The Bulldogs have five players averaging double figures in scoring through the first four games, and the team is averaging 83.8 points per game.
Chuck Harris leads the group with an average of 15.8 points a game and adds 3.5 assists. Guards Eric Hunter Jr. (4 assists per game) and Simas Lukosius (3.8) have been two of the primary architects for the crisp ball movement Matta spoke about.
–Field Level Media