On Friday, the Vols won an out-of-character contest against Mississippi State despite season highs in turnovers, missed free throws, and shots blocked. On Saturday, the pendulum swung.
Against Arkansas, the Vols hit 11-of-17 from the arc, a season-high 64.7%. Jordan Bone, James Daniel, and Lamonte Turner splashed three each, and Admiral Schofield added two others. The Vols jumped out to a 6-0 lead, then Daniel and John Fulkerson unleashed a 10-0 run at the eight minute mark to put the Vols up 17. That’s the sentence you were expecting to read, I know.
It was 19 at halftime on the strength of 19-of-25 from the floor in the first 20 minutes, an unbelievable 76%. That sort of fire can’t last, but Tennessee’s defense and excellent free throw shooting made sure Arkansas got no closer than 11 in the second half.
The win puts Tennessee in good position to earn a trip to Nashville for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Vols are eighth in RPI and putting on a good show in St. Louis, while teams from the Big Ten take the week off. And I wouldn’t rule out a No. 2 seed just yet, especially with a win tomorrow.
And tomorrow, a special piece of history will be on the table.
The Vols haven’t won the SEC Tournament since 1979. LSU won the league that year, but Tennessee beat Kentucky twice in the regular season, then took down the Cats in overtime in the tournament finals. Appropriately, it is Kentucky who will stand between Rick Barnes’ squad and a bigger slice of immortality tomorrow.
This team already has a piece of that pie, having won the SEC regular season championship. And, like everyone else, its ultimate destiny will be decided over the next few weeks. But not only does it have a chance to do something truly special tomorrow, it is also playing its best basketball in the present.
I thought we might have seen it the last time we faced Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Then I thought we saw it in Starkville two weeks ago. You can’t expect to shoot 76% every night or 65% from the arc, no doubt. But Rick Barnes’ team is relentlessly committed to improvement. The Vols have won 16 of their last 19 games. They are up to 11th in KenPom. They just keep getting better.
And they will need to in order to earn a three-game sweep of Kentucky. The game in Rupp Arena was as even as any I’ve seen, both in the box score and in its flow. The entire contest was played within one possession other than a four-point Tennessee lead that lasted 10 seconds. Tennessee won because they made the plays at the end of the game, including two of their nine steals on the night. The Vol defense was opportunistic against Arkansas today as well.
Kentucky isn’t a complicated animal: they’re 22-3 when shooting better than 29% from the arc, 1-7 when they don’t. We’ve seen both sides of that coin: they were 3-of-14 (21.4%) at Rupp, but did shoot 7-of-19 (36.8%) in Knoxville and still lost.
The Vols will need to dodge the kind of shooting performance we saw from Kentucky and Wenyen Gabriel today, and keep Kentucky’s size off the offensive glass and away from the foul line. Rick Barnes, who is 4-2 against Kentucky at UT, always uses undersized bigs like Armani Moore and Admiral Schofield to attack Kentucky; Schofield’s 16 shot attempts were the most for any Vol at Rupp, and I would expect something similar again tomorrow.
There is already so much to celebrate with this team, and so much still ahead of it no matter what happens tomorrow. This one will get to stand on its own, as Kentucky stands in their way one more time.
1:00 PM ET, ESPN. Wear your orange to church.