Tennessee Basketball: What Rick Barnes and Players Said After Winning SEC Championship

Rick Barnes and the Vols celebrated their 66-59 win over South Carolina and SEC Championship on Wednesday night.

Mar 6, 2024; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Tennessee Volunteers guard Josiah-Jordan James (30), forward Jonas Aidoo (0), guard Jordan Gainey (2), and guard Santiago Vescovi (25)
Mar 6, 2024; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Tennessee Volunteers guard Josiah-Jordan James (30), forward Jonas Aidoo (0), guard Jordan Gainey (2), and guard Santiago Vescovi (25) / Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
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Tennessee basketball and Rick Barnes clinched their second regular season SEC Championship since Barnes stepped foot in Knoxville in 2015. It's the first SEC Championship since 2018 and the first outright title since 2008.

The Vols had a challenging path, too. They had to beat Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina, all top-20 teams and potential threats, to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Barnes understood the challenge the Vols would face and told his players to embrace it.

"We knew it was going to be hard, but we looked at it, we said, we got to embrace it because we can learn a lot about ourselves and see if we can continue to get better. And start forming the right mindset (for the) postseason. "

Rick Barnes

A big reason the Vols were able to get to the South Carolina game with a chance to win the SEC Championship was a result of their leadership. Barnes mentioned Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James as guys his team has leaned on with their experience playing under Barnes.

"Well, obviously, I'm extremely proud, but I'm so blessed. The good Lord has blessed me with a group of guys that I think anybody in the country would want to coach. And these guys, from the time that we got back in the summer before we went on our foreign trip, we talked about with Santi and Josiah especially, who's been through so much; they were five years here, and they've done such an incredible job leading along with Zakai [Zeigler]."

Rick Barnes

Barnes also noted that South Carolina head coach Lamont Paris should be the National Coach of the Year. Paris quickly turned the Gamecocks around from a bottom feeder with an 11-21 record in year one to an emerging contender with a 24-6 record so far in year two.

The Vols have faced a tough schedule this year. The SEC is deep, with contenders six deep. The broadcast even mentioned a potential five-way tie for the SEC Championship if Tennessee lost. That's not because Tennessee or the SEC is bad, but a testament to how good the SEC is this year.

The SEC has seven teams with at least 20 wins in the year, with one more regular season game to go. Five teams are behind Tennessee that could have beaten out the Vols for the SEC title. Games like Wednesday night against South Carolina prepared the Vols to continue winning down the stretch.

"I think that being in games like this, it seems like they've all been tough, (and) hard, certainly the last couple weeks. But understanding each other more. And the one thing we don't want to do is totally rely on Dalton, and I thought maybe the biggest play of the game was Zakai's three ... but I think maybe the biggest one is each guy sort to understanding what he has to do to help his team be the best it can be as individuals."

Rick Barnes

Another key to Tennessee winning the SEC is Dalton Knecht's performance throughout conference play. Knecht averages 26.75 points per game against SEC opponents and has undoubtedly secured the SEC Player of the Year award over the past couple of weeks.

"Well, the one thing about Dalton, he's not afraid. He's not. He's not; he's got a really short memory, and he's very confident. He thinks he can score. He thinks every shot he shoots is gonna go in. And so he's a guy that I do think the guys feed off of him."

Rick Barnes

We've seen multiple times throughout the year where Tennessee players took time to work in extra shots after a loss and big wins. Knecht credited the Vols' work ethic throughout the season as the reason the Vols were able to clinch the SEC Championship on Wednesday night.

"We were consistent in being ready to go out and compete, you know, (it) starts in the film room with coach and going out and practice every single day. "

Dalton Knecht

Their hard work has put them in the spot they needed to be in to win the past three games. The Vols' wins over Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina have shown them what they are capable of and where they can continue to improve as they prepare for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

"It's big. I mean, they're a great team. They came out ready to play on their home court, Senior Night. They were ready; the crowd was ready. So we know we had to go out and be ready for it, and we knew they were going come out and we're gonna get punched in the mouth, but we just know, we just had to go out and keep executing."

Dalton Knecht

Jonas Aidoo has been with the Vols for a few years now and is finally molding into the player the Vols need to control the paint. He spoke about winning an SEC Championship while playing through one of the toughest schedules in the country.

"We've been talking about championship games for a while now. Just taking each game going one by one. We know we got the toughest schedule ahead right now and we still got one more to go. So this game was really big, too."

Jonas Aidoo

While everyone is happy celebrating an SEC Championship, the Vols know their potential doesn't end here. Their eyes are on the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

"I mean, it's great. We haven't won a regular-season championship since 2018 if I'm not mistaken. So you know, what is it, 2024 right now? So that's a few years back. And then we still got the tournament and the big tournament, too, so it is just really exciting."

Jonas Aidoo

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Tennessee has one more game remaining in the regular season. On Saturday, when Kentucky comes into town, the Vols will honor the seniors on this year's team. Tennessee solely owns the SEC Championship and one-seed in the SEC Tournament, so the Vols will look to continue their momentum with another great basketball team coming into town.