SEC tourney win was likely UT’s only route to NCAA

Friday, March 13, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 11
By Rhiannon Potkey

There was an outside shot the Tennessee men’s basketball team could have earned an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament after wins against Florida and Kentucky.

But those chances likely ended last weekend when the Vols lost to Auburn 85-63 in the regular-season finale at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Tennessee then needed to run the table this week at the SEC Tournament and capture the title to return to the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.

But that's not going to happen since the tournament was canceled after the first night due to COVID-19 precautions.

“It is a new season for everybody,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said before this week's events. “We have seen things happen. All we have left is that postseason. That is our only chance.”

Barnes wanted to see the Vols hang around as long as possible, and not only for the automatic NCAA spot up for grabs. He said his young team needs to get experience and court time to help the growth process for the future.

This was always expected to be a season of change for the Vols after Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone left early for the NBA.

But Tennessee’s depth and experience took an even bigger dip when senior guard Lamonte Turner decided to end his college career because of a nagging shoulder injury.

The Vols welcomed Santiago Vescovi to the team midseason to help fill the sudden void, and threw the freshman guard from Uruguay right into the fire.

Vescovi has flashed his potential while also enduring some expected growing pains as he transitions to college without having any offseason to prepare.

Junior forward John Fulkerson has carried the Vols at times, earning compliments from coaches around the SEC for his effort and improvement.

Fulkerson was 20 for 30 from the field in Tennessee’s wins against Florida and Kentucky, averaging 24.5 points per game.

He’s been complemented by junior guard/forward Yves Pons. The native of France put his name in the running for defensive honors because of the impact he’s had stopping opponents across the floor.

Pons entered the week with 73 blocks this season, which ties C.J. Black (1997-98) for Tennessee’s single-season record.

“Think about the number of ‘fix it’ plays he’s had for our team,’’ Barnes says. “When we’ve struggled staying in front of the ball or in other areas of the floor, he’s had more ‘fix-it’ plays than any guy we’ve coached in a long time.

“For a guy of his size to go out and make those plays – and he takes great pride and joy in doing it. He’s had to guard all five positions in this league, he’s not afraid to do it and we’re not afraid to put him in those spots.”

The SEC Tournament would have been the first taste of college postseason play for Tennessee freshmen Davonte Gaines, Josiah-Jordan James, Olivier Nkamhoua, Drew Pember, Uros Plavsic and Vescovi.

James made some key contributions after returning from a groin injury, but took a slight step back in the loss to Auburn by going 1 for 6 with four turnovers.

“I was as surprised as anybody because you felt like he had finally turned the corner where he was starting to get into a flow,’’ Barnes points out. “I know he doesn’t do it intentionally, I know that. That goes back to maturity. It goes back to understanding how to take care of your body. The way you eat, the way you sleep, all that built up to it.

“I don’t think he’s got that part of it down yet and I don’t think he understands how that part affects him more than he might know. I hope he’s learned that lesson.”

Senior guard Jordan Bowden was part of the Tennessee teams the last two seasons that made a three-game run to the SEC Tournament championship game. Although those teams were filled with more experienced players and were locks to already make the NCAAs, he’s not discounting Tennessee’s potential in what has been an unpredictable season across the landscape of college basketball.

“Anything is possible,” Bowden says. “We just have to be focused. We have to continue to execute our game plan no matter who we’re playing. We just have to stay focused.”

As disappointed as he was in Tennessee’s performance against Auburn, Barnes is hopeful his team can revert back to the group that beat Florida and Kentucky.

Lady Vols in waiting mode

The Tennessee women’s basketball team seems likely to extend the program’s streak of making every NCAA tournament despite not having any real quality wins this season.

The Lady Vols lost to Kentucky in their second game at the SEC Tournament last week in Greenville, South Carolina, after beating Missouri in the opening round.

Tennessee’s RPI is 64, and ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme had the Lady Vols listed as a No. 11 seed entering the week

The women’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show is scheduled for Monday, March 16.