College basketball fans around the country relish the advent of March each year; for them, it means conference tournaments and a chance to watch their favorite teams try to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament. For Tennessee fans, however, it means something even sweeter: the chance for reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and the No. 8 ranked Volunteers (27-4, 15-3 SEC) to win a conference tournament title.
In order to do that, however, the Vols will have to stand up to a rigorous bunch of tournament contestants, beginning with the Mississippi State Bulldogs (23-9, 10-8 SEC).
The Bulldogs and the Volunteers matched up on March 5 in Knoxville, in a game that saw Admiral Schofield’s return to outstanding play. With a trio of buckets from beyond the arc, Schofield and the Vols routed the Bulldogs, 71-54.
Following its loss to Tennessee, Mississippi State was able to take out its frustration on Texas A&M (14-18, 6-12 SEC), beating them by 11 points in their last regular-season game. Much to the chagrin of A&M fans, the Aggies and the Bulldogs met again in the second round of the SEC Tournament, resulting in a Mississippi State blowout and an exclamation mark on its previous win.
The Vols, meanwhile, ended their regular season with an 80-84 loss to Auburn in Auburn Arena, a game in which Williams had 25 points and nine rebounds.
Should the Vols make their way past Mississippi State, they will face Kentucky (26-5, 15-3 SEC) or Alabama (18-14, 8-10 SEC), with Vegas liking the former. Recent dissatisfaction with Alabama coaching means a good showing in the conference tournament is critical for Coach Avery Johnson’s job security; the No. 10 seed Tide defeated No. 7 seed Ole Miss 62-57. Alabama already had a win against Kentucky in the regular season — while Calipari and the Wildcats are out to reclaim the conference throne, the possibility of an upset is far from remote.
However, the rising expectation for the third contest between the Vols and the Wildcats is palpable, and both teams’ paths to the conference championship could collide on Saturday.
For both teams, this matchup would mean the conclusion to a confusing series of alternating decisive victories, with each squad garnering a convincing win at home. Tennessee would once again find themselves squaring up against the talented Wildcats, a team carrying a hefty myriad of accolades.
Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans were named SEC Freshman of the Year and Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year, respectively, with sophomore PJ Washington making first team All-SEC. The Vols, too, received their fair share of praise, with Grant Williams voted First Team All-SEC (the only unanimous selection), along with teammate Admiral Schofield. Jordan Bone was voted All-SEC Second Team.
Although fans may be tempted with dreaming further down the line, the Vols, under the capable direction of tournament-tested head coach Rick Barnes, seemed determined, as per usual, to stick to the game in front of them. Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon, also selected First Team All-SEC, has been tested all year long by a rigorous schedule yet continues to earn 19 points and five rebounds points per game; his efforts in the tournament will certainly be an obstacle for the Vols.
Ultimately, the key for Tennessee’s success Friday and beyond is whether or not Williams and Schofield can get the talent of Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner into the game.
Williams constantly tries to get his teammates in the game, out of slumps, and draining buckets. It’s evident from the regular season that the men in orange are electric all the way down the roster. The team that dropped 50 points from the bench on Georgia needs to take advantage of the team-oriented basketball that made them No. 1 earlier in the season.
If Tennessee wins the conference tournament and does well in March Madness, Tennessee fans might soon be planning trips to the Final Four in Minneapolis, a lengthy 14-hour, 953-mile drive north. Yet, the wise know that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and the Vols plan to take that step with a good foot forward on Friday.
Edited by Robert Hughes
Featured image by Jake Nichols