LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Playing a top-10 team shouldn’t be a big deal for Tennessee, whether it’s in Hawaii, Knoxville or Lexington. The Volunteers have played 11 such games in just the last four seasons, when their “elite program” card was still valid.
So why was playing No. 6 Duke Monday in the Maui Invitational a referendum game? Why did they come to the island four days in advance to prepare for it? And why was the fact that it was a two-point game with nine minutes left a form of victory?
The Blue Devils won 77-67 -- they always seem to win in Maui. They’re now 13-0 all-time here. Austin Rivers was rather impressive on his way to 18 points after a slow start, Duke’s two 6-foot-11 starters (Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly) combined for 25 points and 19 rebounds and Seth Curry had 17 smooth points. Onward and upward for the national title contenders.
But for Tennessee, what happened might’ve had more currency. Even in a double-figure loss, the Volunteers acquitted themselves well. In this place and time, that qualified as meaningful.
“We beat a really good team today,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They played really hard together. … They played their butts off.”
Krzyzewski praising a just-vanquished opponent is hardly a rare occurrence. But that didn’t mean the Vols hadn’t earned some of it.
The program, as is well-known and has been heavily documented, has had a tough year. It got a new coach, Cuonzo Martin, who has a horde of new players and is in the midst of changing the team’s playing style. They don’t have their two stars from last season and overall have a grand total of four players who have won more than one letter on the roster.
This is why they were picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference. A team with seven straight NCAA tournament appearances that was in the Elite Eight in 2010 picked one spot from dead last. No longer elite, in other words. No longer assumed they’ll compete with the likes of Duke.
So to go head-to-head with the Blue Devils, a game that clearly had been on their minds for months, and to do so with an intensity and aggressiveness that belied their lot contained some true value. Duke will forget about it soon, with what is shaping up to be a nice early-season test against Michigan on Tuesday, and then a litany of other big games in their future. The Vols, who face another top-10 team in Memphis on Tuesday, might have sent a message they’ll still be a factor in the SEC.
Tennessee was relentless in attacking the basket both in halfcourt and in transition, which Martin said was part of the game plan. The Vols followed it. They were outsized on the interior by Duke’s three big men -- Miles and Mason Plumlee plus Kelly all going 6-foot-10 or taller, not something they’ll see often this season -- but outscored the Blue Devils in the paint and played to a near draw on the rebounds.
“I don’t think [being intimidated] was the case at all,” Martin said. “Our guys played with a level of toughness.”
It’s yet to be seen whether that will be consistent. But the indications are the Vols under Martin will be a high-intensity group. Martin played 11 different players at least nine minutes and UT won the bench scoring, fast-break and second-chance point categories.
Forward Jeronne Maymon battled the Duke frontline for 12 rebounds, five of them on the offensive glass. Despite being in foul trouble, point guard Trae Golden had 13 points. If Tennessee had been able to do anything on the outside -- after making 26 combined 3-pointers in their first two games, Duke made it a priority to stop it and held the Vols to no 3s for the first time sine 1997 -- the outcome might have stayed in doubt longer.
This performance, though, seemed to be deeper than this one game for Tennessee and perhaps a hint of what the rest of the season might look like.