It’s (still) basketball time in Tennessee!

The Fearless Prediction was in the middle of a well-deserved 8-month slumber, waiting for Joe Milton to throw a football out of Nissan Stadium. But Tennessee’s men’s basketball team gave us a reason to stretch our legs and use our talents for the betterment of society.

On Thursday night, the Vols will take on Florida Atlantic University in the East Region’s Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in New York City. Win that game, and UT will advance to the Elite 8 for only the second time in program history.

Rick Barnes has heard the criticism. He’s won 779 games in his Hall of Fame career, putting him 15th all-time in Division I-A. But he’s only gotten to the Final Four once. There’s a golden opportunity ahead to make a second trip, but the Vols must take care of business against FAU to earn the chance to get there.

Out of Conference USA, the Owls were given an 9 seed in this tournament, rallied in the final seconds to beat Memphis in the 1st round, and then outlasted Farleigh Dickinson in round 2. Were the Owls under-seeded? Sure seems that way, considering they are 33-3 and still standing.

Guard play is huge for a basketball team, especially at this time of year. Sophomores Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin combine for 27 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, and the Vols will have to account for their scoring abilities. Vladislav Goldin, a 7-1 center, is the Owls top option down low. He averages 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.

At 78.4 points per game (ranked 32nd in the nation), the Owls have proven that they can score points in bunches. They also shoot the ball well from long range, making 37% of their attempts.

This is strength on strength because Tennessee’s bread and butter is, of course, their defensive play. Currently allowing only 57.8 points per game (3rd best in the nation), the Vols can stay in games even when their shots aren’t falling.

Keep in mind that it might not be easy for the Vols to wear down the Owls. They rotate off the bench a good deal, with 9 players on the court for more than 15 minutes a game.

Offensively the Vols average 71.2 points per game (ranked 182nd nationally). Not great. Not awful. They miss NYC native Zakai Zeigler desperately. The Vols point guard tore his ACL a few weeks back and is now serving as the team’s emotional leader from the bench.

The Vols are finding ways to make up for Zeigler’s 10.7 points and 5.4 assists per game. Santiago Vescovi leads Tennessee in scoring with 12.7 points per game while shooting 37% from 3-point range. Vescovi must stay out of foul trouble for Tennessee to advance. He missed major minutes in the 1st round against Louisiana, a game the Vols barely survived.

Olivier Nkamhoua, 2nd on the team with 11 points per game, is coming off a career-tying 27-point outing against Duke. He scored 23 of those points in the 2nd half. His ascension has been a difference maker for UT.

One of the most important aspects of this game will be how the referees call it. Tennessee wants this game to played “in the mud.” Bullyball propelled the Vols to their 65-52 win over Duke in the 2nd round. Tennessee’s physicality was so obvious and crucial to the outcome that announcer Jay Bilas (a Duke grad, ahem) wondered why it was officiated like a hockey game. Tennessee’s physical style of play has gotten a lot of attention in the last few days. It’s nothing new. UT has played this way all season.

But if the officials call a tighter game, that probably will not be to the Vols’ advantage.

These games are being played at Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena. There’s some good Tennessee karma at play in that building. Three of the greatest to ever play for the Vols also played for the New York Knicks. Too bad that Ernie Grunfeld, Allan Houston and Bernard King can’t suit up for the Vols this weekend.

Florida Atlantic might not get the attention of SEC schools, but make no mistake, the Owls can play. They are ranked 21st currently in the KenPom rankings and sport a 33-3 record. They certainly have the capability to beat Tennessee.

But the Vols are battle-tested. This is a senior dominated team. They won’t shrink from the moment.

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Fearless Prediction time …

Tennessee 61, FAU 56