Last season, Tennessee lost to Auburn, eventually turning out to be the difference between an outright SEC regular season championship and a share of the title.
Last week, Tennessee lost to Auburn, meaning the Vols could not repeat as SEC champs. On Sunday, Tennessee faces Auburn for a chance to win its first SEC Tournament title since 1979.
In order to do so, the Vols will have to figure out former head coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers, a task they were unable to complete a week ago at Auburn.
“We’re going to probably get on the film tonight and watch that and figure that out,” senior forward Kyle Alexander said. “I don’t want to say too much, because that’s the coach’s job, but I definitely know that rebounding and defense are going to be some things to look at.”
Rebounds weren’t a problem for Tennessee in that game, as it out-rebounded Auburn, 39-27. Defense, however, was an issue.
The Tigers scored 84 points on 26 of 56 shooting, including 13 made 3-pointers. Senior guard Bryce Brown made four triples.
“They shoot the piss out the ball,” Grant Williams, who led Tennessee with 25 points against the Tigers, said. “That’s part of their DNA. That’s what Bruce (Pearl) preaches. He wants those guys to take their shots.”
Forward Chuma Okeke paced Auburn with 22 points on 9 of 14 shooting in that game.
“(Chuma Okeke is) a fantastic player, all-league player, in my opinion,” Williams said. “But they also have two talented guards in Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. They’re just a deep team, and Bruce Pearl does a good job of switching it up.”
Tennessee has bounced back from that loss with a seven-point win against Mississippi State and Saturday’s whirlwind 82-78 victory over Kentucky.
For the Vols, it goes back to experience and knowing each other.
“We’ve been through everything,” point guard Jordan Bone said. “We’ve seen everything. We’ve played the best teams. We’ve been ranked number one in the country. We’ve been 16-16. This same group has gone through everything. That’s why we’re so good together.”
With the NCAA Tournament rapidly approaching, there’s a mantra surrounding March.
“This time of the year, players gotta play,” Schofield said. “Players gotta make plays.”
Forward John Fulkerson made plays off the bench for Tennessee on Saturday.
Fulkerson scored five points and grabbed two rebounds in 11 minutes of action. Four of his five points came via dunks.
His coach has preached readiness to the reserves.
“I think his message to everybody, especially the bench players, is to be ready,” Fulkerson said. “Whenever your name is called, be ready. Be on edge and be locked in mentally.”
Tennessee and Auburn will tip off at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN, as the Vols look to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“It would mean a lot for our program, us as a team…but Vol nation especially,” Schofield said.