Brooklyn, N.Y. (TNS) — No. 2 Kansas versus No. 5 Tennessee is an early-season matchup that Bill Self really, truly wants to see.
“I think we may need it more than Tennessee, to be quite candid,” 16th-year KU coach Self said Wednesday night after the Jayhawks’ 77-68 come-from-behind victory over unranked Marquette in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center.
“We are young and not as tough as we need to be. We better be pretty tough Friday the way they play or they could make us look really bad. It’s a great game for our team to see where we are without question,” Self added.
He was previewing a much-anticipated tourney finale between the Jayhawks (4-0) and Volunteers (4-0), set for an 8:30 p.m. Central time tip on Friday back at Barclays, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
Tennessee, which starts two seniors and three juniors, and returns 90 percent of its scoring from last year’s 26-9 SEC championship team, defeated unranked Louisville (3-1) 92-81 in Wednesday’s other NIT semifinal.
Junior forward Grant Williams, who hails from Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., the alma mater of KU freshman Devon Dotson, scored 24 points with nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two turnovers in 34 minutes against Louisville.
Williams — he averages 22.5 points and 8.5 rebounds a game — has topped the 20-point mark for three straight games for the first time in his college career.
“I’ve watched enough tape to know obviously they have a superstar,” Self said of Williams, last year’s SEC player of the year and this year’s SEC preseason player of the year, “but they have interchangeable parts. They have a bunch of strong players that switch a lot of stuff. The way they run offense is pretty much interchangeable, which we’ve struggled against that. We need to have a good 48 hours of prep,” he added.
The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Williams hit 9 of 15 shots and 6 of 9 free throws against Louisville. He’s attempted 34 free throws in four games, sinking 24. A year ago, he was fourth in the SEC in free throw attempts (212) and fifth in makes (162).
“I look forward to it. My former high school teammate is on the team. It will be fun to go against Grant Williams,” said KU point guard Dotson. The McDonald’s All-American scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting with four assists and three steals in 31 minutes against Marquette.
Asked how well Williams played in high school, Dotson stated of his former teammate with a smile: “He was good. He was good.”
UT senior guard Admiral Schofield scored 20 points with six rebounds, four assists and three turnovers in 36 minutes Wednesday, while junior guard Lamonte Turner, who was playing in his first game this season, scored 13 points off the bench. Junior guard Jordan Bone and soph forward John Fulkerson had 11 points apiece.
“Big, strong and aggressive team,” KU junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said of Tennessee.
Nationally … this might be considered a showdown between Williams and KU forward Dedric Lawson, who scored 26 points and grabbed 12 boards versus Marquette.
Self is convinced former Texas coach Rick Barnes’ Vols, who were picked second in the SEC preseason poll behind Kentucky, definitely rank as one of the top teams in the country.
“I have watched Tennessee a little bit just because they played Louisiana right before we played them,” Self said. His Jayhawks beat Louisiana, 89-76, while Tennessee stopped the Ragin’ Cajuns, 87-65. “Tennessee is a team that legitimately has a shot to win the national championship,” Self added.
Tennessee’s team was strengthened on Wednesday following the return of junior guard Turner. He’d missed the first three games because of shoulder tendinitis.
“I watched a lot of basketball. I thought about basketball. I was in my room with my basketball,” Turner, last year’s co-SEC sixth man of the year, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
“He made a couple big ones,” Barnes said of Turner, who was 3 of 8 from three on Wednesday, helping the Vols stretch a 71-70 lead at 8:47 to 85-70 at 5:16 following a 14-0 run.
Louisville hit 44.1 percent of its shots and was 11 of 28 from three to Tennessee’s 54 percent shooting mark (8 of 22 from three).
“Our goal is to keep the ball out of the painted area — truly, the NBA painted area,” junior forward Williams said of his team’s philosophy. “That’s a lot larger. If you can hold teams outside of that, they are going to have to make some tough threes and mid-range shots. They (the Vols) made some tough shots.”
“We know defensively we have to be better. I didn’t play great defensively, especially on the ball. A lot of times we just miscommunicated. It’s a part of growing and learning. We’re going to have to watch this film and be ready to play Friday,” Williams noted.
Zeke Nnaji, a 6-foot-10, 210-pound senior from Hopkins (Minn.) High School, who is ranked No. 37 in the recruiting Class of 2019, is scheduled to announce his college choice at noon Friday at his high school. He has a final list of Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona, UCLA, Baylor and Purdue. ... The Jayhawks are scheduled to stay in New York following the game Friday and return to Lawrence on Sunday. The plan is to sight-see on Saturday, visiting various sites in Manhattan.