Tennessee’s 17th-ranked basketball team has 11 players averaging more than five minutes per game entering Saturday’s noon showdown against No. 20 Illinois in the Food City Center.
One reason for such a high number is that the future is taking place sooner than expected for Volunteers freshman forward Cade Phillips.
The son of former Alabama quarterback John David Phillips and the nephew of another former Crimson Tide quarterback, Brodie Croyle, has appeared in six of eight games through Tennessee’s 5-3 start, averaging 6.7 minutes per appearance. While playing time can often be a spreading of wealth during nonconference mismatches, Phillips has averaged eight minutes the past two outings against North Carolina and George Mason.
“I can’t say enough about Cade,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after the 100-92 loss to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Nov. 29. “He’s got so much respect from his teammates, because the one thing they know he’s going to do is to go in and battle. That’s a guy we thought we were going to redshirt, but he’s earned his right to be on the floor.”
Tennessee announced Friday that its game against the Fighting Illini, which will be televised by CBS, is a sellout.
Vols assistant coach Rod Clark said during a news conference Friday that knowing what you’re going to get from the 6-foot-9, 212-pounder from Jacksonville, Alabama, has separated Phillips from the other freshmen. Phillips insists his goals are to just play hard and display versatility.
“Every team in the country has its needs,” Phillips said Friday, “and if I can fill as many of those needs as possible, then that’s my baseline for sure. Every team needs defense and rebounding, and that’s something that I’ve prided myself on.”
Phillips logged a season-high 12 minutes and collected a season-high three rebounds at North Carolina. The absence of sophomore forward Tobe Awaka due to an ankle injury and the foul trouble that plagued junior forward Jonas Aidoo were factors in Phillips receiving that much time on the floor.
Aidoo and Awaka had career games this past Tuesday against George Mason, combining for 28 points and 15 rebounds, but Phillips made the most of his four minutes by making all four of his free throws and grabbing a rebound during the 87-66 runaway.
Phillips was a three-star prospect who played at Jacksonville High School through his junior season before playing his senior year at Link Academy in Branson, Missouri. He is averaging 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds during his first few weeks with the Vols, which have contained a season’s worth of experiences.
“When you think of the mecca of college basketball, you think of the Maui tournament and of blue bloods like UNC,” Phillips said. “We’ve experienced those in the first month of playing, and it’s been a blast. There has definitely been a learning curve.
“There was no easing into college basketball. Our exhibition game was at Michigan State.”
A familiar face
Nearly two years ago to the day, Tennessee lost 57-52 to Texas Tech in overtime at the Jimmy V Classic in New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden.
It was a hard contest to watch, as the two teams combined on 10-of-63 shooting from 3-point range, and only one player scored more than 10 points. That player was 6-6, 225-pound guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who spent his first three seasons with the Red Raiders and is now in his second year at Illinois, having earned Big Ten first-team status last season.
Shannon racked up 18 points and 12 rebounds against the Vols and enters Saturday averaging 21.6 points per game while shooting 53.9% from the floor and 45.3% from 3-point range.
“He’s good at getting downhill,” Clark said. “He’s really athletic. He’s strong. He’s physical. We’ve got to make him see bodies when he drives, because he’s playing like an All-American right now.”
Looking to future?
Illinois has a 7-1 record that includes a 1-0 mark in the Big Ten, having won at Rutgers 76-58 last Saturday. Four Big Ten teams — Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota and Purdue — have already played two league games, and Barnes believes a similar landscape could be on its way to the Southeastern Conference.
“I don’t think there’s any question in the next year or two we’ll be playing a conference game this time of year like the Big Ten,” Barnes said. “I think that’s going happen to us, so we might as well get used to it.”
Odds and ends
Tennessee has won 24 consecutive nonconference games at home — including toppings of Arizona and Kansas — since losing to Wisconsin on Dec. 28, 2019. … A win over the Illini would give Barnes a 33-33 career record against Big Ten members. … The Vols have four 1,000-point career scorers on their roster: Santiago Vescovi (1,378), Dalton Knecht (1,111), Josiah-Jordan James (1,059) and Jordan Gainey (1,017).
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.