Tennessee Vols sticking to 'grown man' basketball identity in Sweet 16 vs. FAU

NEW YORK — A good, hard and clean box-out starts with your eyes.

Tennessee basketball forward Uros Plavsic watches the ball leave the shooter’s hands and spots the opponent in the best position for an offensive rebound. Then it’s about the hips, leading with the lower body to clear space and compete for the ball.

“You pursue the ball,” Plavsic said. “Then whatever happens after that, happens.”

In the case of Duke freshman center Kyle Filipowski, what happened Saturday in Orlando was tumbling to the court and rolling over.

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No. 4 Tennessee (25-10) is rolling into the Sweet 16 against No. 9-seeded Florida Atlantic (33-3) on Thursday (approximately 9 p.m. ET, TBS) playing its trademark physical brand — and it has drawn positive and negative attention for it since clinching a trip to New York City by beating Duke on Saturday.

“I think playing good, hard basketball, it’s not something nice to look at,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “I know our guys played hard.”

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Jonas Aidoo had blood on the right shoulder of his compression sleeve after the Vols beat Louisiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He didn’t know if it belonged to a teammate or an opponent.

Tennessee hasn’t shied away from physicality this season on its way to having the nation’s top-ranked defense. It rode that defense to its 65-52 win against No. 5-seeded Duke in Orlando and it wants that to be its identity.

“We are trying to be the best defensive team in the country,” Vols guard Tyreke Key said. “That is what we pride ourselves on. That is part of how we play — physical.”

The criticism of Tennessee’s style trickled in the day after beating Duke. ESPN analyst and former Blue Devils player Jay Bilas on Colin Cowherd's podcast Sunday said the game was “officiated like a hockey game” and featured multiple flagrant fouls that were not called.

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Officials reviewed multiple fouls in Tennessee’s win. None were flagrant after review.

Plavsic drew two fouls in the first 2:12, one for an elbow during a rebound that caught Filipowski and had the freshman flailing out of bounds. He got his second on a hard box-out of Filipowski.

Tennessee controlled the remainder of the game with its style of play, enforcing its will on the younger Blue Devils.

“It was a really physical, tough game out there,” Plavsic said. “Everybody competed at the highest level. I feel like it is a grown-man game out here. We are just out here to win games. It is March. Whatever it takes.”

Tennessee basketball embraces comments on physicality

Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May quipped Sunday that he was going to “study Australian rugby rules and get ready for the Vols” after the Owls sealed a matchup with the Vols.

“If playing hard is labeling us as rugby players, then I guess we are the best rugby team out there,” said Zakai Zeigler, who is out for the season with an ACL injury.

May clarified Wednesday that his comment was meant “in the most complimentary way possible” and referred to Barnes as a “legend.”

The Vols take commentary on their physical nature as complimentary already. Key suggested it speaks to the work Tennessee has done since the summer and the preseason. They have been surprised, however, by the sudden attention they’ve received for it after playing 35 games with the same approach.

Aidoo had heard the word “dirty” used to describe the Vols and was taken back, a shared belief in the UT locker room.

"Playing physical, that is who we are,” Plavsic said. “We take pride in that. We have people that are willing to do that. We have tough dudes on the court and tough coaches who set the tone in practice. We just go out there and hoop.”

But playing rugby though?

"I wouldn’t want to play it,” Zeigler said. “Even though people say that is how our team plays, I would not want to play rugby. It is a crazy sport. I wouldn’t be able to play it.”

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at 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 wants 'grown-man' title vs. FAU in Sweet 16