Carrying roll into SECs big for UT
By Marcus Fitzsimmons | (email@example.com)
No doubt, it’s better to be on the floor.
The Vols didn’t get the kill they could have, but they did get a win.
Forget the fact Tennessee didn’t press a 19-point first half lead into a bench-clearing rest stop against a Mississippi State team with six scholarship players and 10 wins. The biggest point in fact for UT was it played in the postseason and won.
“(The NCAAs) something we’re not thinking about right now. ... All we thought about is Mississippi State and now our focus is Alabama,” UT’s Trae Golden said following the 69-53 win that put the Vols back into the quarterfinals via victory.
Tennessee’s duplication of the season-ending 8-of-9 run that made it a No. 2 seed in the SEC tourney last season wasn’t enough to get UT a free ride to the quarterfinals this year and so much the better.
Coach Cuonzo Martin believes the Vols NCAA fate is settled and his friend and Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray concurs.
“I thought Tennessee was an NCAA Tournament team before we played them and I definitely think that now,” Ray said as his first season in Starkville came to a close.
But league solidarity not withstanding, UT’s one-and-done SEC tournament last season and the ensuing second-round loss to Middle Tennessee in the NIT are memories to be erased from the minds of fans and selection committee members alike.
Which is the benefit of being No. 5 rather No. 1 thru 4 in the SEC.
The Vols added membership in the 20-win club and the claim to have won in the postseason to its NCAA resume Thursday. Two things UT didn’t accomplish last season when it sat around waiting for the quarterfinals as the No. 2 a year ago, just like No. 4 seed Alabama was doing this year.
Tennessee also got something else the Crimson Tide might value today when the pair of 20-11 squads meet — a full-tilt game on the floor of Bridgestone Arena. “We know teams will make runs, teams will compete,” Martin said following his 100th coaching win. “Getting stops, taking care of the basketball, playing hard, finding a way to win is the most important thing in this venue.
“I told our guys that (Mississippi St.) might have an advantage, they are familiar with the rims and had played on the floor and come off with a win.”
That experience wasn’t enough to help State against the Vols but for Alabama, who split two close games with Tennessee this season, it could be a mark in UT’s favor.
Adjusting to unfamiliar arenas and spaces goes with the territory in college basketball, especially the postseason. It isn’t supposed to matter. But then the Vols also fell off from a 41 percent shooting pace their last nine games to 28 percent in last year’s overtime loss to an Ole Miss team that played it’s way into the quarterfinals.
There’s a benefit to not sitting around for the second round. At No. 5, the Vols were guaranteed a team they had already proven they could beat. Guaranteed a team playing on a short night’s rest after the now 14-tea, league’s new play-in games. Guaranteed the opportunity to gain some postseason confidence and poise.
For a half Tennessee got what it wanted and made the absolute most of it before its inexperience in the situation of finishing things off.
“I feel like we were up 15 and that’s just something you have to develop as far as the killer instinct, as far as going up 25,” Jarnell Stokes said.
But early on the Vols played exactly how Martin wanted. They shot well, defended well and took care of the basketball. Yes they got sloppy in the second half but this is a Vol squad used to pulling the fat out of the fryer in the final moments, not methodically turning up the heat on someone else’s goose.
It’s not just “the win”, it’s “the when you win” that matters and Tennessee was in the right place with the right seed at the right time to move on and possibly avoid being left out again.
But rolling on today sure wouldn’t hurt.
Marcus Fitzsimmons is sports editor at The Daily Times. You can follow him on twitter at TDT_Sports. He wrote from Nashville.