Tennessee basketball a different team since start of SEC Tournament

Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.Kns Vols Georgia Bulldogs Hoops Bp
Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.Kns Vols Georgia Bulldogs Hoops Bp /

Of the many things Tennessee basketball has been this season, consistent hasn’t exactly been one of them. It should come as no surprise that the Vols are a different team than they were two weeks ago. Believe it or not, losing a senior player and an important game in the SEC Tournament could help them in the long run.

UT’s luck began to shift in their first game of the 2021 SEC Tournament, a 78-66 win over the Florida Gators, when senior John Fulkerson was struck in the head with an elbow from UF’s Omar Payne. While Payne was ejected from the contest, Rocky Top was also down a player, as Fulkerson was taken to the locker room and did not return to action.

With a concussion and facial fractures, the Kingsport, Tenn. native watched Tennessee basketball’s semifinal matchup with the Alabama Crimson Tide from the sideline. Despite leading for a vast majority of the game, Rick Barnes’ squad suffered its first loss in nearly two weeks in a 73-68 defeat to the eventual SEC Tournament Champions.

It should be noted that with under a minute to go in that contest against Alabama, Davonte Gaines had a chance to put the Vols ahead at the free-throw line. Unfortunately, the sophomore from Buffalo, N.Y. missed both attempts from the charity stripe. We’ll return to the significance of this now in a moment.

How is UT still on the right track after suffering a loss?

The Vols’ mission at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. was to win the SEC Tournament. Though they lost to a bitter rival and may be without one of their most important team members going forward, their fans should look at the silver linings that come with both setbacks.

Regarding Fulkerson’s injury, Tennessee basketball was forced to give Uros Plavsic more minutes than he’s seen all season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Although fans would’ve rather seen Fulkerson down low as he’s been all season, Plavsic played well and will likely be important as March rolls on.

Payne has since apologized for injuring Fulkerson, to which Fulkerson responded with appreciation and forgiveness. It’s also important to remember how the team rallied around the loss of Fulkerson and finished their win against Florida on a strong note.

Losing to Alabama may be more valuable in the long run for the Vols than a win would have been. Keep in mind that last year’s SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament were canceled before the Vols could take the court.

While it was the first taste of true March college hoops for young players like Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, it was also the first win-or-go-home game for Santiago Viscovi, DaVonte Gaines and Josiah-Jordan James. That experience could prove valuable.

Equally important, seniors Yves Pons and Fulkerson hadn’t played with that pressure in two years. Victor Bailey Jr. hadn’t played survive-and-advance minutes in nearly three years. Although Plavsic was with the Arizona State Sun Devils in 2018-2019, he redshirted that year, so this is his first experience playing survive-and-advance minutes at this level as well.

So, yes, it’s a shame Tennessee basketball didn’t come away with an SEC Tournament Championship trophy. However, they lost to a very strong opponent and gained valuable learning experience on the pressure and tempo that comes with college basketball this month.

Returning to Gaines’ missed free throws, those things happen. Gaines hadn’t played all game and was thrown into action to lock-down SEC Player of the year, Herbert Jones. He did just that but was fouled after he came down with the rebound. No one could’ve seen that coming.

What came as more of a surprise was the outpour of support from Gaines’ current and future teammates after the game. Gaines, who was clearly upset with himself following the missed opportunity, was praised by Plavsic for being one of the hardest-working players in the country.

Even the Vols’ 2021 commitments chimed in. Five-star guard Kennedy Chandler and four-star forward Jahmai Mashack also reached out to their future teammate on Twitter after the heartbreaking loss over the weekend.

We can’t say they’re “peaking” right now, but it would be hard to find a point throughout the season where the team’s camaraderie was stronger. After all, there’s a reason this tournament is considered madness. We’ve all seen what can happen on a basketball court in March.

Next. Tennessee basketball's road to the Final Four. dark

One of the most important things this Tennessee basketball unit can do is work to stay in each game. There are sure to be many teams that fall in the coming weeks similar to how the Vols lost last week to Alabama. Putting themselves in a position to make plays at timely moments is about as good as anyone can do this time of year.