On this week’s edition of Rocky Topics, Chase Carder and Gray LaRose debate whether Tennessee (16-15 8-10 SEC) can win two games against Georgia and Kentucky in the SEC Tournament
Carder: Tennessee will surely have its hands full against Georgia before even considering a matchup with Kentucky. A betting man would surely advise against it, but the Vols undoubtedly have a chance to advance to the conference semifinals. The comeback victory against Alabama in the season finale could re-energize a team in dire need of confidence boost. On the other hand, Georgia is coming off an 18-point loss at the hands of Arkansas. While the Vols will have their hands full with upperclassmen JJ Frazier and the returning Yante Maten, they’ll also be looking for revenge after the Bulldogs snuck away with a 76-75 win at Thompson Boiling back on Feb. 11. The optimist in me envisions another game that goes down to the wire, but with senior Roberts Hubbs leading his team to victory rather than Frazier. Now, onto Kentucky. Taking down the top team in the conference will be quite the task, but Tennessee proved back in January it can beat the Wildcats. Sure, one can argue Kentucky’s 83-58 victory in Rupp back on Valentine’s Day may have a bigger indication when it comes to a neutral site matchup. Keep in mind Kentucky has failed to win a game by more than 10 points since this beat down, while the Vols would be coming in fresh off back-to-back victories. If my prediction on the first game turns reality, that’s two straight close games where Tennessee came out victorious. That can do a lot for a team’s confidence.
LaRose: While I agree that Thursday’s matchup against the Bulldogs will be another nail-biter, I think Georgia will be the team advancing on to play Kentucky, and here’s why. The Vols struggled down the stretch, going 4-6 over the previous ten games, including that 76-75 loss at home against Georgia back in February. Hubbs could spark an underclassmen-ridden Tennessee team during a close rematch, but I think Frazier will show again that he is too much for the Vols’ young team to handle. Even if Tennessee can somehow pull out a victory Friday night, there is no way they are capable of beating a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team, which has found its stride as of late. The Wildcats have won eight straight games to close out the year including that impressive win over Tennessee. Coming off a close game against Georgia, I don’t think the Vols would have enough in the tank to compete with the Wildcats explosive freshman guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Tennessee is just too young and doesn’t have the experience to compete.
Carder: You’re right. The Vols have struggled down the stretch. Remember before that stretch when they were being discussed as an NCAA tournament team? Despite the struggles, it’s not as if that team disappeared. Sports are weird. Teams can go on cold or hot streaks at any time. In my view, Tennessee’s most recent victory combined with their encouraging performances from matchup on neutral site floors early in the year makes it hard to not view Tennessee as a low seed capable of advancing far. The tough road makes this a tougher pitch to sell, but the youthful Vols have already proven they can hang with the big boys on a neutral floor. Shembari Phillips is arguably Tennessee’s top perimeter defender has earned an increased role since the last meeting with Georgia, maybe he can take on the role of shutting down Frazier late this time around. Then, maybe the Vols can shoot better than 34 percent in a matchup against Kentucky away from Rupp. All of this isn’t to say they “will” win two games, but there’s a better chance of it happening compared to the public’s perception.
LaRose: Sports are weird, and teams get streaky. You’re right. This Tennessee team is easily talented enough despite their youth to make a run on a neutral floor. That being said, it’s not going to happen. The Vols just don’t have enough experience to close out high-pressure close games right now. If you remember, once Tennessee’s tournament hopes began to look hopeful after their four-game win streak, which included wins over then-No. 4 Kentucky, Auburn and Kansas State, the Vols proceeded to blow several second-half leads in crucial bubble games against Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Mississippi State. Tennessee is talented enough to compete if it can hit open looks and Phillips is able to lock down Frazier. The Vols will already have a disadvantage in the paint against both Kentucky and Georgia. However, if the undersized frontcourt of Grant Williams and Lew Evans are physical enough to make it difficult for Maten and the rest of Georgia’s big men. Tennessee will keep it close. I just don’t see Tennessee having that go-to shooter late in the game to leave Nashville with a victory.
Edited by Quinn Pilkey
Featured image by Brad Blackwelder