Tennessee basketball to the Final Four? Michigan State’s Tom Izzo thinks so

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Izzo reminisced Sunday on past battles with Rick Barnes when the Tennessee basketball coach was the Texas basketball coach.

The duo secured a lasting friendship then. And it’s because of that friendship that the Michigan State coach offered up a thought.

“I think since he is a good friend of mine, let’s put pressure on him: That is a Final Four team,” Izzo said. “I really believe that. I really do.”

No. 9 Tennessee established that belief in Izzo’s mind during its 89-88 exhibition win against No. 4 Michigan State at Breslin Center on Sunday. The Hall of Fame coach already thought the Vols were good — lauding them as a top-five team entering the game and again after.

He raised the ante and the belief after a game that didn’t officially count.

Why Tom Izzo thinks Tennessee basketball can reach the Final Four

Izzo has coached against Barnes’ teams 10 times — eight times when Barnes was at Texas, last season in a closed-door scrimmage and this season’s charity exhibition to support Maui wildfire relief.

He knows how Barnes coaches and what he wants to do. But he sees a difference in this Tennessee roster.

“I think he has got more depth than he has normally had,” Izzo said.

Seven Vols played at least 14 minutes against Michigan State with transfers Jordan Gainey and Dalton Knecht leading the way with 34 minutes each. They led the Vols with 20 and 28 points, respectively.

Tennessee also didn’t have its pair of preseason All-SEC guards in Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler. Vescovi is in Uruguay tending to a family matter and Zeigler is recovering from ACL surgery in March. That’s nine players battling for major minutes for the Vols without considering the freshman group of guard Cameron Carr and forwards J.P. Estrella and Cade Phillips.

“You have to be good,” Izzo said regarding Tennessee reaching the Final Four. “You have to be lucky. You have to be all those things. Tennessee is a team that is going to beat a lot of people.”

Tennessee basketball went big and it went small against Michigan State

The Vols rolled out a four-guard lineup with senior Josiah-Jordan James starting at the four against MSU. It also played with James at the three while utilizing Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka as forwards.

Those interchangeable parts and lineups give the Vols a shot to Izzo.

“I think when you can do that it is always healthy in the tournament when you run into different styles and different teams,” Izzo said.

Izzo praised Awaka as being a “manchild” while noting that the sophomore gives Tennessee a different presence than the 6-foot-11 Aidoo. Aidoo had eight rebounds. Izzo noted the wing size that Tennessee has with Gainey, James, Knecht and Mashack as adding more versatility as a physical and athletic team.

Tennessee basketball added shooting in Dalton Knecht, Jordan Gainey

Barnes told Izzo after UT’s win that it was “best and hardest game that Knecht had played.” That was a comment about Knecht’s defense. Izzo was impressed by the shooting.

Knecht was 3-for-9 on 3-pointers and 8-for-16 from the field. He was 9-for-11 at the free-throw line. Gainey was 4-for-7 from three and 6-for-10 from the field.

“They were very efficient, too,” Izzo said. “They didn’t take bad ones.”

Six Vols made 3-pointers as Aidoo, Mashack and Freddie Divine V each hit their only attempt. James was 1-for-2. That was good, Izzo said. As is the depth and versatility along with the shooting.

Who is Rick Barnes? A tour of Italy with Tennessee’s basketball coach shows the man within

But one final thing came to Izzo’s mind: Tennessee is well-coached because it has Barnes, who has a roster that an eight-time Final Four coach thinks could reach the program’s first one.

“I think he feels good about that, too,” Izzo said.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee basketball is Final Four team to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo

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