By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Like the games against Kansas and Kentucky before, Tennessee entered Saturday’s game versus No. 13 Auburn as an underdog with little expectation from anyone outside of Knoxville to do much more than show up and compete in a losing effort.
Like those games before, Tennessee did more than simply arrive and play basketball. Despite the losing efforts before there were positives to take away from those loses, and not just moral victories, but signs of legitimate growth with this Vols basketball team. Reasons to believe that Tennessee—having lost four key players from last year’s team and Lamonte Turner this year to a season-ending shoulder injury, could still put together a run and forge a path to the NCAA Tournament.
Unlike those previous defeats, this one was a little more bitter to swallow.
Tennessee blew a 17-point lead with less than 15 minutes remaining in the game when Auburn went on an 18-0 run to jump in front and seize control of the game en route to a 73-66 win over the Volunteers Saturday afternoon at Auburn Arena.
The most telling stat is one Rick Barnes has emphasized numerous times before: turnovers. Tennessee committed 24 of them and the Tigers turned those into 27 points of their own. The Vols gave the ball away six times during Auburn’s 18-0 run in just over six minutes. Turnovers have plagued this team all season. It hurt Tennessee in the SEC opener against LSU, recently cost it a game against South Carolina and was a serious flaw for the Vols on Saturday.
The giveaways were an issue for the team as a whole. Josiah-Jordan James had a team-high six turnovers. Santiago Vescovi had five, John Fulkerson had four and four other players committed at least one each. Turnovers have piled up for the Vols in big games and those games, as the stat suggests, have been literally given away by Tennessee.
The loss also spoiled a great welcome back party for Jordan Bowden, who had a career-high 28 points in his best game of the season. The senior went 9 of 12 from the field and 3 of 4 from distance, his first time knocking down three outside shots since Jan. 25 against Kansas. The 75% clip from the field is his highest of the season and he also added six assists.
It’s been a brief summary of Tennessee’s season in the biggest games of the year. The Vols have lost to Florida State, Memphis, Kansas, Kentucky and Auburn by a combined 33 points, or 6.6 per game. One could argue the margin of defeat to Kansas, Kentucky and Auburn wasn’t the best indication of how close those games were for Tennessee.
Had Tennessee pulled out one or two of those games the NCAA Tournament talk would be warranted, but the Vols are just 1-9 against Quadrant 1 opponents (though VCU is hovering right outside the Q1 line) and Tennessee also has a Quadrant 3 loss on its resume to Texas A&M from Jan. 28.
Winning out would get Tennessee to 19 total wins. The 19-win number would garner some bubble talk, but the odds of Tennessee pulling it off—especially considering the letdown of Saturday’s loss, are microscopic. However, if the Vols are to get it done, the next step is a trip to Arkansas on Wednesday. Tennessee crushed the Razorbacks 82-61 on Feb. 11. Arkansas mercifully snapped a five-game skid on Saturday against Missouri that followed the news that guard Isaiah Joe would be out indefinitely with a knee injury. Tip-off on Wednesday is at 8:30 p.m. EST. The Sports Animal will have Vol Network coverage beginning at 8 o’clock.
SEC week in review
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi was really holding out hope for the SEC Friday morning with his bracket projections for March. Mississippi State was among the First Four Out. South Carolina, Arkansas and Alabama were all in Lunardi’s Next Four Out. Alabama joined Arkansas to add one to the win column over the weekend.
Alabama went to Oxford and pounded Ole Miss, 103-78. Alabama has 12 losses, a top 20 strength of schedule ranking and sits at 40th in the NET. However, the Crimson Tide has only two Quadrant 1 wins on its resume. With a road trip to Starkville on Tuesday and a home game against South Carolina on Saturday, this week will determine the fate of Nate Oats’ first season in Tuscaloosa.
Elsewhere on the SEC bubble, South Carolina dropped its second straight to LSU, 86-80. The Gamecocks trailed by 19 with five minutes remaining and closed the gap to five points, but didn’t get closer. Elsewhere, Texas A&M shot nearly 60% from the field in a 87-75 win over Mississippi State.
Kentucky stayed atop the SEC with a 65-59 victory over Florida at Rupp Arena. The Gators were a 9-seed on Friday, per Lunardi. Saturday’s loss shouldn’t drop Florida out of the field, but a win in Lexington would’ve given Mike White’s squad some added security heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. The Wildcats now have a two-game lead atop the conference leaderboard.
As if Vanderbilt hadn’t suffered enough this year, the Commodores failed to hit a pair of free throws with five seconds remaining and Tyree Crump made Vandy pay for it with a deep, buzzer-beating 3 to give Georgia a 80-78 win in Nashville. The Bulldogs have won two straight and Anthony Edwards provided one of the highlights of the weekend with this thunder slam.
😱 Anthony Edwards’ dunk!
👀 That dance celebration!
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 23, 2020
NC State couldn’t pull off a big back-to-back sweep of Duke and Florida State after losing to the Seminoles on Saturday. Lunardi had the Wolfpack in his tournament field on Friday and shouldn’t be punished for losing to a good Florida State team. Regardless, NC State is in good position to win three of its last four.
Virginia avoided disaster by beating Pitt on Saturday. The defending champs were in Lunardi’s Last Four Byes on Friday, but the Cavs finish the season at Virginia Tech, home against Duke, at Miami and home against Louisville. A loss to the Panthers would’ve made it much more difficult on Tony Bennett’s squad.
Kansas-Baylor: Part II delivered on Saturday with the Jayhawks snapping Baylor’s conference-record 23-game win streak in Waco. Udoka Azubuike had a monster game with 23 points and 19 boards as the two teams are now tied for first place in the Big 12.
Oklahoma was a 10-seed for Lunardi last week, but the Sooners were waxed by Oklahoma State in a 17-point loss on the road. Oklahoma has lost three straight, but has two chances to pick up a boost in the NET with its next two games coming against Texas Tech and West Virginia.
At the end of the non-conference season I thought Providence was the only team in the league without a shot of making the NCAA Tournament. Now the Friars are flirting with a trip to the dance after Saturday’s 84-72 win over Marquette in a game that wasn’t even that close. Providence is now 16-12 and in fourth place in the Big East with a sweep of the Golden Eagles and wins over Butler, Seton Hall and Creighton. With a trip to Villanova and home games against Xavier and DePaul to finish the regular season, two more wins might be enough to get Providence into the tournament for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
Seton Hall, Villanova and Creighton sit atop the league. The Pirates will face Nova and Creighton once more in the regular season. The Wildcats split two meetings with the Bluejays this year and Creighton already has a win over Seton Hall. The final stretch should be fun.
At one point it looked like 12 teams from this league could find a spot in the tournament field. Lunardi’s latest number is ten and I’d like to agree. I can’t make much of an argument for Purdue anymore after the Boilermakers fell to Michigan on Saturday for their fourth straight loss and 14th of the season. Minnesota’s loss at home to Indiana last Wednesday sealed the deal for the Golden Gophers. Daniel Oturu is a stud and Marcus Carr has been solid, but the strength of the league has overwhelmed Minnesota for most of the season.
For what it’s worth, Ohio State has been playing better as of late. The Buckeyes scored a nice win at home over No. 7 Maryland and have won six of their last eight games. This team is still just a shadow of its December self when it looked next in line to be the No. 1 team in the country and Kaleb Wesson looked like a Wooden Award winner, but the recent surge is positive for fans in Columbus.
Payton Pritchard had a rough night in Thursday night’s loss to Arizona State. He struggled from the floor early and fouled out of the game with an ill-advised reach-in that sidelined him in the second half with his team down by five. But few players have singlehandedly won more games for their team this year than Pritchard has for Oregon. The guard had 38 points on Saturday in the Ducks’ 73-72 overtime win over Arizona. While Pritchard’s performance helped Oregon through the first 40 minutes, it was Shakur Justin who scored all nine of the Ducks’ overtime points, including the go-ahead layup with one second remaining. Arizona missed a pair of foul shots at the end of regulation and overtime to finish 10 of 21 from the charity stripe in what would’ve been a big win at home.
Oregon (+185) scores with 1.4 seconds left to take the lead but sent Arizona to the line after a Hail Mary pass with a chance to win it.
Oregon would prevail however after Arizona missed both free throws.
— Bet The Hoops (@betthehoops) February 23, 2020
Meanwhile UCLA has won five straight, including on the road at Arizona and on Saturday at Colorado. Suddenly the Bruins are just a half-game back of first place in the conference. This is a team that lost to Hofstra and Cal State-Fullerton earlier in the year. This team’s going to mess around and win the Pac-12, isn’t it? Nah, probably not.
I put Gonzaga on upset alert on Friday and for good reason. BYU can ball, and it proved it in a 91-78 win over the Zags on Saturday night. The win vaulted the Cougars into the top 15 of the NET rankings and Lunardi acknowledged after the game he would have BYU as a 6-seed and possibly higher when his next bracket is revealed.
It was only a matter of time before San Diego State finally lost. UNLV isn’t great and it’s a Quadrant 3 loss for the Aztecs, but every team has a bad day. If anything, the main prize on the line for San Diego State was a shot at a No. 1 seed. That’s likely gone, especially if the Aztecs drop another game before Selection Sunday, but don’t assume this team can’t play just because of a loss to the Run-in’ Rebels. Wins over BYU, Creighton and Iowa (all away from home) are proof this team is legit.
East Tennessee State scored a monster win on Wednesday by beating Furman, 75-66 to take over the top spot in the SoCon. The Bucs followed that up by winning at Samford on Saturday. Former Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes can lock up the regular season title this week with a win at Wofford and at home against Western Carolina.
In the Atlantic 10, it’s Dayton’s world and everyone else is just trying to find an inroad to the big dance. Rhode Island and Richmond looked like they were on their way to do just that, but Saturday might’ve thrown a wrench in the plan. After Lunardi had both teams in the field on Friday, Rhode Island lost to Davidson in overtime while Richmond dropped a tight road game to St. Bonaventure on Saturday. Both teams still sit in the top 50 of the NET, but losing to teams outside the top 75 might hurt the league’s chances of being a three-bid league.
Early in the non-conference season Vermont was being discussed as a potential mid-major team from a less-than-mid-major conference to potentially be this year’s Wofford and make a splash in the NCAA Tournament. That ultimately won’t be the case, but the Catamounts are still atop the America East standings after holding off Stony Brook in a 1-2 matchup earlier in the week. More impressive was Vermont beat the Seawolves despite Anthony Lamb scoring just three points. Then Vermont followed up that big road win with…a loss at home to UMBC. Weird. Still, Vermont will be favored to get back to the NCAA Tournament when Championship Week arrives in March.