The Tennessee Vols (20-11, 11-7 SEC) enter the 2014 SEC Tournament as the No. 4 seed, which means they receive a “double bye” in the tournament.
What does that mean, you ask? It means that the Vols get to skip the opening and second rounds of the tournament while seeds 5-14 battle it out for a chance to play the top 4 seeds (Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee).
Tennessee’s first opponent will be the winner of the game pitting 5th seeded Arkansas (21-10, 10-8) against the winner of No. 12 Auburn and No. 13 South Carolina on Wednesday.
Let us assume the Vols will take on Arkansas, a fellow NCAA bubble team, because the Razorbacks should be able to handle either of the two teams it will play (although anything can happen in the SEC this season). How do the Vols stack up against them, and what are their chances of winning and advancing deep into the tournament?
First of all, let’s take a trip back to January 22nd at Thompson Boling Arena when these two teams last faced each other. The Vols defeated the Razorbacks 81-74, and they did so mostly because they were able to make 30 of their 38 free throw attempts. Without that large quantity of free throws, the Vols would most likely have lost that game. Arkansas had a better field-goal percentage and shot the ball better from behind the 3-point arc and kept it close for the entire game.
Jordan McRae also gave a Herculean effort that night, pouring in 34 points and collecting 7 rebounds all while carrying the team on his back late in the game, scoring the team’s last 13 points.
While all this is good for one night and one victory, the Vols must know they cannot hope for a repeat performance from the charity stripe or from McRae. The Vols will have to continue to play the elite defense they have been the past 3 games and slow the high octane Razorbacks. Arkansas finished the regular season averaging 80.6 points per game, which is good for 17th in the nation.
Assuming the Vols are able to defeat Arkansas again is a very dubious assumption to make, but let us make that assumption for the time being.
The next opponent the Vols would likely face would be No. 1 Florida. And that “No. 1″ does not simply refer to their seeding; these Gators are the No. 1 team in the entire NCAA at the moment, and they proved they are by far the best team in the SEC this season, finishing the conference season 18-0, the only team with an unblemished conference record.
Keep in mind that this Florida team dismantled the Vols in Gainesville, 67-41, and even though the Vols gave a great effort and hung around for a while, the Gators also claimed a victory in Knoxville by a score of 67-58. These Gators have a superb defense, surrendering only 60.5 points per game this season, and they held the Vols to two of their lowest offensive outputs of the season.
The Vols face a tough enough test against Arkansas, but can Tennessee really advance past the Razorbacks and match up against the dominate Gators? Can they even hope to make it to the SEC Championship game?
My answer: Yes.
The Vols have battled inconsistency all season, but I am sold that this team is sick of hearing the talk about their coach not being fit to lead them, and I believe this team is finally starting to find a stride. As long as the Vols continue getting contributions from their X-factors (Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson), I believe Tennessee has what it takes to advance to the SEC Championship game for the first time since 2009. Their defense has been solid, and their offense is starting to be the balanced attack Vol fans foresaw at the beginning of the season.
Will the Vols actually make it to the Championship? History would tell us “no.”
But that’s the great thing about March: History rarely can control the madness of the season.
Statistics via ESPN.com