By Jimmy Hyams
The SEC tournament provided the good, the bad and the ugly for Tennessee basketball.
The good was a thrilling victory over Kentucky as the Vols rallied from eight points down in the final 2:58 in the semifinals.
The bad was a 20-point loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament final, denying the Vols their first conference tourney title since 1979.
The ugly was, within an eight-day period, Bruce Pearl cost UT not only a tournament crown but an SEC regular season championship.
Auburn outplayed and outhustled the Vols before a 90 percent pro-UT crowd at Bridgestone Arena, 84-64. You knew Tennessee was in trouble when it trailed 32-23 at halftime after Auburn had shot just 5 of 20 from 3-point range and leading scorer Jared Harper had played just two minutes due to foul trouble.
Auburn hit 10 of 20 beyond the arc in the second half to blow out Tennessee.
The defeat raised questions about UT’s depth, UT’s stamina, UT’s focus and UT’s ball-handling.
Could those issues crop up again during the NCAA tournament?
It was apparent Tennessee had not recovered from a physical and emotional win over Kentucky the day before. It marked just the second SEC tourney win over Kentucky since the event’s renewal in 1979 (UT is 2-4 v. Kentucky since then). It also marked just the second time since 1979 that UT has beaten Kentucky twice in the same season (2018, 2019).
All that being said, Auburn broke a plethora of trends for Tennessee, these stats courtesy of John Pennington with the Sports Source.
UT had been 22-0 when attempting 21 or fewer 3s. UT was 8 of 15 against Auburn.
UT had been 25-1 when called for 21 or fewer fouls. UT committed 18 fouls against Auburn.
UT had been 21-1 when Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner took 18 or fewer shots. They took 18 against Auburn.
UT had been 21-0 when Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were called for nine or fewer fouls. They were called for eight.
UT had been 25-1 when holding the opponent to 45.9% shooting or less. Auburn shot 40.6%.
UT had been 23-0 when opponents shot 23 or fewer free throws. Auburn was 17 of 21 from the foul line.
UT had been 20-1 when opponents’ starting forwards and centers scored 23 or fewer points. Auburn’s had 18.
Some dubious trends continued:
UT is now 12-5 when attempting fewer than 18 free throws. UT was 10 of 13 against Auburn.
UT is now 4-4 when handing out 14 or fewer assists. UT had 11 against Auburn.
UT is now 4-5 when the opponent scores 80 or more points.
UT is now 3-3 when opponents have nine or fewer turnovers. Auburn had seven.
Tennessee opens play in the NCAA tournament Friday against Colgate at 2:45 p.m., or about 30 minutes after the Cincinnati-Iowa game in Columbus, Ohio.
Whether those trends continue remains to be seen.
This is the third time Tennessee has been a two seed.
In 2008, the two-seed Vols lost to Louisville in the Sweet 16.
In 2006, the two-seed Vols lost to Wichita State in the round of 32.
With one win, the Vols will become the second team in program history to achieve 30 wins.
But winning just one game in the NCAA tournament would be a major disappointment for this team.
As Grant Williams has often said, the Vols want to hang a banner. They’re 0-for-2 on hanging banners this season (SEC regular-season, SEC Tournament).
The only banner worth hanging now is the Final Four.
And that would be ground-breaking for the Vols.
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