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Tough challenge for CU Buffs men’s basketball to bounce back against No. 11 Tennessee

Colorado's Nique Clifford works on the perimeter against Grambling State on Friday night in Grambling, La. (University of Colorado Athletics/courtesy photo)
Colorado’s Nique Clifford works on the perimeter against Grambling State on Friday night in Grambling, La. (University of Colorado Athletics/courtesy photo)
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NASHVILLE — In November of 2020, there was absolutely no plan for the Colorado men’s basketball team to play Tennessee in the near future.

On Sunday, the Buffaloes and Volunteers will meet for the third time since then in a series assembled quickly, and on the fly, during the hectic pandemic-spurred schedule juggling of the 2020-21 season. For CU, coming off a ragged and disjointed loss at Grambling State on Friday in the first game of a five-game road trip, the Buffs will have to get much better in a hurry to put up a fight against the 11th-ranked Volunteers.

“We’ve got to use (Grambling) as a learning experience, learn from our mistakes that we made,” CU’s Nique Clifford said. “We have a tough opponent on Sunday in Tennessee, so we’ve got to put (Grambling) behind us, learn from it, and move on to the next one and get ready.”

Early in the 2020-21 season, the Buffs faced a sudden void in their schedule when virus issues canceled the rivalry game against Colorado State. At the time, former CU assistant Kim English was an assistant at Tennessee, and he conspired with former Buffs guard Nate Tomlinson, then CU’s director of player development, to set up not only a replacement matchup that week, but a three-game series.

A shorthanded CU team lost in Knoxville two years ago, and the Buffs again fell to a 13th-ranked Tennessee team at home last year. English and Tomlinson are at George Mason now as the head coach and assistant coach, respectively, but Sunday’s contest represents the final thread of their scheduling handiwork. For purposes of the NET rankings this season, the showdown at Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, will be considered a neutral-floor matchup despite a crowd that surely will be heavily in the Volunteers’ favor.

“Watch film, get better,” junior forward Tristan da Silva said after the loss at Grambling State. “Get back in the gym and prepare mentally. That’s all we can do right now, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The Buffs flew to Nashville immediately after Friday’s loss and practiced on Saturday afternoon. It left little time for CU to address the many shortcomings revealed against Grambling State.

Defensively, CU was a step slow the entire night, allowing the Tigers to shoot 50%. The Buffs allowed just four opponents to shoot 50% last season, including two games against nationally-ranked Arizona. CU still could have survived its own frustrating night shooting-wise against Grambling — the Buffs finished .403 overall and went just 5-for-21 on 3-pointers — if not for 19 turnovers that led to 20 extra points for the Tigers.

A similar effort against Vols likely will lead to a nightmarish day in Nashville.

“You don’t shake it off. You get up (Saturday) morning and you watch the film,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “We’ve got a 3 o’clock practice Saturday afternoon. You don’t shake this off. You don’t turn the page. You learn why this happened. And you show your players on film why it happened, so that they can learn. Because a lot of times players, they don’t live in reality. The film is reality. The reality is Grambling beat us.

“They deserved to win. They were the tougher team, the more energetic team. All the things that don’t take a lot of talent, Grambling did and we didn’t do it.”

CU Buffs men’s basketball at No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers

TIPOFF: Sunday, noon MT, Bridgestone Arena, Nashville.

TV/RADIO: TV — ESPN. Radio — KHOW 630 AM.

RECORDS: Colorado 1-1; Tennessee 1-0 (27-8 last season).

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 13th season (255-156, 311-222 overall). Tennessee — Rick Barnes, 8th season (151-81, 755-395 overall).

KEY PLAYERS (2021-22 stats): Colorado — F Tristan da Silva, Jr., 9.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .373 3-point percentage; G Nique Clifford, Jr., 6.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg; G KJ Simpson, So., 7.4 ppg, 2.7 apg. Tennessee — G Santiago Vescovi, 6-3, Sr. (13.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.2 apg, 403 3-point percentage); G Josiah-Jordan James, 6-6, Sr. (10.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg); G Zakai Zeigler, 5-9, So., (8.8 ppg, 2.7 apg).

NOTES: Tennessee lost two key players from last year’s win in Boulder in forward John Fulkerson and then-freshman guard Kennedy Chandler, whose 27 points at CU last year were the most by a Buffs opponent last year (Chandler was a second-round pick by Memphis in this past summer’s NBA draft). A CU perimeter defense that struggled at Grambling State will be tested by Santiago Vescovi, who went 5-for-5 overall and 3-for-3 on 3-pointers last year at CU…Tennessee opened the season with a 75-43 rout at home against Tennessee Tech. The Volunteers were led by 17 points from Tyreke Key, a graduate transfer from Indiana State who was playing his first game for Tennessee…The Vols’ opening win was the 1,150th game coached by Tennessee’s Rick Barnes in his 36-year career…An odd stat from CU’s loss at Grambling State: Despite the Buffs’ 19 turnovers, the Buffs actually ended with a 24-20 advantage in points off turnovers thanks to 18 from the Tigers. Much of that damage was done late as CU scrambled in its comeback attempt, as the Buffs had only two points off turnovers at halftime…The Buffs are 0-4 all-time against Tennessee… The Buffs will have an off day in Nashville on Monday before traveling to the Myrtle Beach Invitational, where they begin a three-game tournament against UMass on Thursday (11:30 a.m. MT, ESPNU).

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