After beating Florida on Sunday, Tennessee earned the fourth seed and double-bye in the SEC tournament. Tennessee will open up tournament play on Friday afternoon with a possible matchup against Vanderbilt, Texas A&M or Florida.
The Commodores finished the season with two wins and two losses after their home loss to Tennessee.
Vanderbilt was able to get a 75-70 win at Ole Miss and a 78-64 win at Cincinnati.
The Commodores were without Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. against Ole Miss. Against Cincinnati, they had Pippen back and he carried the team with 36 points and was able to draw 12 fouls.
The two losses came against LSU, where they lost 83-68 without Pippen and Disu. Ole Miss was also able to get revenge on the Commodores with a 56-46 win to close out the regular season.
Disu will not make a return to the lineup as he had a season-ending knee surgery a few weeks ago.
Pippen will most likely be in the lineup once the tournament starts, but it’s unknown his health status as he’s been dealing with nagging injuries.
Vanderbilt would need to beat Texas A&M on Wednesday to play Florida on Thursday in order to even have a chance to play Tennessee on Friday. Without Disu and a healthy Pippen, it seems like a tall task for the Commodores.
Tennessee did a good job of keeping Vanderbilt in check for the most part in both wins this season. But, in the second matchup Vanderbilt was able to turn Tennessee over while making the Vols pay from behind the three-point line.
“I think you have to give Jerry Stackhouse a great deal of credit, ” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “They do so many things well offensively. They spread us out, and they made some threes — some tough ones. We turned the ball over way too much, especially early. We have to stop turning the ball over.”
Tennessee would be favored in a rematch but the battle of in-state rivals is always sure to be hotly contested — especially during the SEC tournament.
The Aggies have been hit hard by COVID-19 since the Vols last met them, finishing the season 8-9 (2-8 SEC).
After Tennessee played the Aggies on Jan. 9 and won 68-54, the Aggies have had a total of eight games postponed, none of which ended up being made up.
Texas A&M ended its regular season with a close 87-80 loss to Arkansas, who is the hottest team in the SEC currently.
The Aggies received great performances from Emmanuel Miller and Quenton Jackson who both scored 23 points. Miller also accounted for 10 rebounds.
Savion Flagg also chipped in with 16 points.
In the first matchup against Texas A&M, Tennessee was able to shut down Miller and held him to just eight points and four rebounds on three of eight shooting from the field.
Santiago Vescovi exploded offensively for Tennessee as he scored 23 points on six of 10 shooting from behind the three-point line. He also had five rebounds.
One of the major keys to success against the Aggies was Tennessee finding a way to win on the boards.
“We knew coming in that a big part of Texas A&M’s game was rebounding,” Barnes said. “We knew that we were going to have to do different things. There are so many things that go into it. If you're going to be a heavy gap team, that means you're going to be closer to the basket, that means you're giving your opponent a chance to get a running start. You have to be able to turn around, get back and try to make some contact and go get it.”
If Tennessee did play Texas A&M again, it would need another strong rebounding effort and even stronger defense against Miller to come out of the game with a win.
The most likely candidate to look across the court from the Vols on Friday is the Florida Gators.
Tennessee and Florida played on Sunday in the regular-season finale for the SEC.
Florida dominated the Vols in Gainesville in the first matchup of the two teams. Florida was undermanned due to COVID-19 protocols but, with strong defense and great offensive performances from Noah Locke and Tyree Appleby, Florida was able to get the 75-49 win.
Tennessee shot a horrendous 29% from the field and just 16% from behind the three-point line in the first matchup. Tennessee also turned the ball over 18 times. Offensively, Tennessee didn’t give itself a chance for success with its porous shooting.
In the rematch, Tennessee put together one of its best games of the second half of the season.
John Fulkerson led the Vols with 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Fulkerson looked like the Fulkerson of last season during his senior day showcase.
Keon Johnson also had 14 points on seven of 11 shooting from the field. Johnson had three rebounds but most importantly he attacked the basket every chance he got when the ball was in his hands, and Florida struggled to stop him.
Florida was without Tre Mann who missed the matchup due to migraines. He will bring extra firepower to Florida’s backcourt if he is ready to play on Friday.
For Tennessee, Yves Pons believes the team's performance in the second half against Florida will give them momentum going into tournament time.
“Exactly. That’s the team we are, ” Pons said. “We’re a tough team, we’re physical. At one point today, we were unstoppable. We played together, we played great defense. Everyone was doing their job, and we’re a tough team when we’re like that.”
If Tennessee wins its game on Friday, it would play one of Alabama, Kentucky or Mississippi State.
Alabama is coming into the tournament as the one seed and gave Tennessee fits with its perimeter shooting when it won in Knoxville this year. Tennessee would have to contest the three-point line better if it wants to win a rematch.
Kentucky and Tennessee trade road wins this season. In Lexington, Tennessee was carried by Jaden Springer and Johnson. In Knoxville, the hot shooting of Davion Mintz and the stellar post play of Isaiah Jackson led the Wildcats to a 70-55 blowout win.
Kentucky might not have had the season they were expecting, but they’re talented across the board and could present problems to Tennessee with its size and athleticism.
Tennessee was able to beat Mississippi State 56-53 early in the season. The Bulldogs out rebound Tennessee 42-30. In a possible rematch, Tennessee would need to control the paint and lockdown explosive scorers D.J. Stewart and Iverson Molinar.
Tennessee will start its SEC tournament journey on Friday at 2 p.m. ET in Nashville.