Florida Atlantic head coach Florida Atlantic watches his team play against Memphis in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Florida Atlantic head coach Florida Atlantic watches his team play against Memphis in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes once took a team to watch a rugby match in Australia and loved what he saw.

Despite what Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May says, that sport isn't the Tennessee coach's guide for the rugged style his Volunteers bring to the basketball court.

“I think playing good, hard basketball, it’s something nice to look at,” Barnes said Monday when asked about a comment from the coach of Tennessee's opponent Thursday night at New York 's Madison Square Garden in a East Region semifinal.

May took a swipe at the brawny Volunteers after ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic knocked off Farleigh Dickinson on Sunday night to advance to the first Sweet 16 in the Conference USA program's history.

“We’re going to study Australian rugby rules and get ready for the Vols,” May said when asked about preparing for Tennessee.

Well, the fourth-seeded Vols (25-10) do play in the physically punishing Southeastern Conference. They advanced to their ninth Sweet 16 all time by leaving one of college basketball's bluebloods just black and blue and yes, even a little bloodied beating up No. 5 seed Duke 65-52.

Duke tied its fewest points ever scored in its lengthy NCAA Tournament resume, and 7-footer Kyle Filipowski was hit by an elbow to his face that left him with a small cut under his eye.

This wasn't a case of March badness on the part of the Volunteers. It's simply the difference of being an SEC team where size really does mean more. And all of these Vols are tall, strong with a lot of length that allows them to show off all those muscles.

With point guard Zakai Zeigler out with a torn ACL, no Vol available is shorter than 6-foot-1. Guard Santiago Vescovi is the smallest starter at 6-3 and 191 pounds as Tennessee fills the court up to big man Uros Plavsic at 7-1 and 265 pounds.

FAU has its own 7-1 post player in Vladislav Goldin from Russia, but he spots Plavsic 25 pounds.

Asked Monday if he had gotten a call from Tennessee coach Josh Heupel yet about joining the football team, Plavsic had a quick answer after finishing with more fouls (four) than rebounds (three) or points (zero) against Duke.

“Surprisingly not,” Plavsic said. "I was waiting for one, but maybe he wants to see some more.”

Yet Tennessee finished with fewer fouls (11) than Duke (17) for all of the Vols' punishing play. Barnes said it was just teams playing hard.

“I’m on the rules committee, and the referees did what they thought was right," Barnes said. "And I thought they officiated the game the way they felt it went. But from my perspective, I didn’t see anything dirty from either team.”

Tennessee averages 16.5 fouls per game, putting the Vols in the middle of the SEC where Arkansas, another Sweet 16-bound team, is tied for the league high in averaging 19.3 fouls a game.

For the record, FAU (33-3) averages 15.7 fouls a game.

Barnes defended his Volunteers for working and playing hard. He wants them running fast up the court and bulling their way through screens to score.

On defense, Barnes doesn't want them giving up shots. Defending well also means blocking out for the rebound on missed shots. That literally means physically leaning and pushing an opponent for the best position to grab the ball.

Does that translate to playing a burly, bullying style? Barnes sure doesn't want his Vols helping opponents parade to the free throw line.

“But we are an older, stronger team, big guys. so you’d have to define physicality in terms of how do we use it ...,” Barnes said. "We’re going to try to play as hard as we can play. If that’s being physical, I guess we’re going to be physical.”

Call it mucking up a beautiful game or dragging an opponent down into the mud. That's exactly where these experienced Vols feel most comfortable.

Tennessee allowed an average of 53.5 points through its first two NCAA Tournament games. The Vols lead the nation holding opponents to 26.4% shooting from 3-point range and are third in the country in both scoring defense (57.8 points) and field-goal defense (37.2%) allowed per game.

Only five teams have even reached 70 points against Tennessee.

“Our physicality and our toughness is something that bring people down to the mud,” Plavsic said. "And once you get in there, it’s not easy to get out of it. And I really think that we are looking forward and trying to put all those things to bring going down to the mud and see how they can handle it.”


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