By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
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If Tennessee isn’t on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Vols were unaware on Saturday while trying to hold on against a surging Florida team attempting to climb back from a 19-point deficit with 12 minutes remaining in the second half.
Teams with nothing to play for aren’t usually grinding out rivalry wins at home in front of nearly 20,000 strong because a fourth-year junior sinks his first career 3-pointer and follows it up with a monster putback. Teams that mail it in for the year don’t see their oft-injured freshman guard bounce back from a scoreless game three nights prior to put up 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists while playing 40 minutes. Lastly, teams who don’t seem destined for a lengthy postseason (or potentially any postseason) don’t win games against a team entering the weekend as a tournament lock having won four of its last five with the lone loss coming at Rupp Arena by six.
“We just felt like this was a really important game for us,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said after Saturday’s 63-58 win over Florida. “These guys have worked hard. They’ve prepared hard.”
That doesn’t sound like a team that’s looking ahead to November.
Saturday’s win won’t put Tennessee (16-13, 8-8) back on the bubble and Saturday’s win won’t increase the already slim likelihood for Tennessee to be dancing in March, but Barnes is taking every game he has left in this season to develop his roster as if the Vols still have a lot to play for this year.
“Coming down the stretch when the coaches suggested to me in the last four minutes to get some guys out there I said, ‘Nope, we’ve ridden these guys this far and we’re gonna ride them the rest of the home,’ and they got it done,” said Barnes. “I didn’t feel like it was fair to put somebody in there that hadn’t been in the game at that time because it was a high level game at that point in time, but overall just defensively against a team that’s as tough to guard as anybody in this league we really did defend them in the first half. Second half when they turned it up we didn’t respond the way we needed to for a while.”
After Florida had closed the 19-point gap to pull within one with less than two and a half minutes remaining, John Fulkerson uncorked his first career 3-pointer (on just his second career attempt) with the shot clock winding down. The Gators (18-11, 10-6) never got closer.
In case anyone needed to see that John Fulkerson 3 again. pic.twitter.com/e7MFNy0N3e
— Joel Silverberg (@JoelSilverberg) March 1, 2020
“I knew the shot clock was running down,” Fulkerson said. “I just kinda set my feet and put it up there. It felt really good coming out of my hands. I’m one-for-two in my whole career and both have come this season. It was a really big shot. We were up by one at the time. I was talking to Kerry Blackshear down at the other end, I was like, ‘That was God right there,’ he said, ‘Good shot,’ I said, ‘I can’t really take credit for it.’”
Fulkerson, who acknowledged he doesn’t practice outside shots a lot, finished with a game-high 22 points and shot 10 of 15 from the floor.
Tennessee also got a much-needed boost from Josiah-Jordan James, who scored 12 points, grabbed eight boards and added six assists after shooting 0 for 6 from the field in Wednesday’s loss to Arkansas. Barnes said after the game Tennessee is a different team when James is playing well. The freshman also had a pair of blocks on Saturday, the second of which ultimately sealed the win for the Vols.
“He gives us a fifth guy that is a threat out there and he can shoot the ball,” Barnes said. “That was a big block Josiah made there at the end. That was a big play. At this point in time, we need everybody. We needed it tonight.”
James said after the win he felt like it was his best game as a Vol. The 12 points are the most for him since Jan. 18. He missed the first two weeks of February while dealing with a hip injury that has bothered him for most of the year.
With the win, the Volunteers have at least guaranteed themselves eligibility for an NIT berth. Tennessee heads to Lexington on Tuesday and will host Auburn next weekend before the SEC Tournament begins in Nashville.
Tennessee dropped a competitive game to Kentucky in mid-February at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Wildcats are coming off a gritty 73-66 win at home over Auburn. The victory clinched the SEC regular season title for the Wildcats.
Kentucky is undefeated at home in SEC play this year, but its last three games at Rupp have been testy. The Wildcats trailed by seven in the second half against Ole Miss before the Rebels had a chance to win at the end. Kentucky won by five. It also trailed in the second half against Florida before rallying for a six-point win last weekend. Kentucky never trailed in the second half Saturday against Auburn, but never put the Tigers away until the end either.
One could argue the ‘Cats are vulnerable, or that Tennessee is due for back-to-back wins for the first time since mid-January. Either way, it’s clear the Vols aren’t ready to give up on its season quite yet. Tip-off between Tennessee and Kentucky is Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST. Vol Network pregame coverage will begin at 8:30 on 99.1 FM The Sports Animal.
On a lighter note from Saturday’s game. Tennessee freshman guard Santiago Vescovi, who finished with 11 points and four assists, was surprised to receive a visit from his family at the team’s shootaround. Vescovi’s parents and sister made the trip from Uruguay to Knoxville for the first time and set up the surprise with Tennessee director of basketball operations Mary-Carter Eggert a couple weeks in advance.
After the game, Vescovi was joined by his family during the team’s postgame media availability.
“I hope they made plans because I didn’t know they were coming,” Vescovi said with a laugh.
SEC week in review
Kentucky’s win over Auburn keeps the Wildcats moving upward two weeks out from Selection Sunday. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Kentucky as a 3-seed on Friday though he did say earlier in the week he didn’t think John Calipari’s team had the ceiling to work its way up to a No. 1. That being said, three of Lunardi’s No. 2 seeds—Duke, Florida State and Maryland—all lost on Saturday, along with No. 1 seed Baylor. If chaos continues over the next two weeks then anything is possible, but Kentucky finds itself in a good position to work its way into being a No. 2 seed, which didn’t seem feasible at the start of February.
Auburn meanwhile was sitting on the 4-line on Friday. The record is positive, but this isn’t a team deserving of a No. 4 seed. Its best nonconference wins are Richmond, Furman, Saint Louis and NC State. Four of its five losses have come by double digits and while the Tigers did snag a win over Kentucky at home, it took 44 free throws to do it. Kentucky cut Auburn’s foul shot attempts in half at Rupp Arena the second time around and the Wildcats kept Auburn from going on a second half run. Auburn is a solid, well coached team with a lot of talent, but it’s not one of the best 16 teams in college basketball right now.
Alabama beat South Carolina, 90-86. The Gamecocks are toast after losing three of four and it might be too little, too late for the Crimson Tide. Either team will likely need a run in Nashville for a shot at a tournament bid.
Georgia put a potential roadblock in Arkansas’ path to the tournament with a 99-89 win in Athens. Anthony Edwards scored 26 points to lead the Bulldogs, who scored 52 points in the second half. Arkansas was in Lunardi’s Next Four Out on Friday. The Razorbacks really need a win at LSU on Wednesday.
Speaking of the Tigers, Will Wade’s team handled its business at home against Texas A&M, 64-50. LSU is tied with Auburn for second in the SEC, but needs to win out and hope for an Auburn stumble as LSU lost the only meeting between the two teams this year.
Lunardi had Mississippi State in his First Four Out entering the weekend. The Bulldogs held serve with a 67-63 win over Missouri on the road. Mississippi State has won four of five and heads to South Carolina on Tuesday. The Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks in February and now South Carolina will try to play spoiler for a Mississippi State team trying to work its way back into the tournament field.
And finally, Ole Miss beat Vanderbilt, 86-60. Hotty Toddy, or whatever.
While it’s exciting to finally reach March, February didn’t end without some madness of its own.
Holy Jay Huff. What else can be said about a 10-block performance against Duke? Huff’s 10 blocks, the last of which came on a potential game-winning shot for Vernon Carey Jr., might’ve solidified Virginia’s spot in the tournament. The defending champs were a 9-seed on Friday, per Lunardi. Beating Duke in late February is a monster resume boost.
Virginia’s win over Duke wasn’t the only big splash from the league on Saturday. Clemson shocked Florida State thanks to a drive by Al-Amir Dawes in the final seconds to give the Tigers another upset win on the season. Clemson also has wins over Duke and Louisville this year. All three of those wins came at home. Kind of unfortunate that this Tigers team is only 15-13, and 9-9 in league play despite those wins.
Providence continues to thrive. A team that entered the weekend among the Last Four In checked off another box for its tournament chances by beating Villanova on the road. Luwane Pipkins led the Friars with 27 points. Providence had five ranked wins in the month of February alone. Two of those came away from home. Wins over Xavier and DePaul this week could send the Friars back to the tournament.
This is what I get for pumping up a team the way I’ve hyped up Creighton the past two weeks. After winning five straight, the Bluejays were demolished by second-to-last-in-the-league St. John’s by 20 on Sunday. With all the upsets towards the top of the bracket projections, it’s unclear if Creighton really cost itself a shot at a top 3-seed. Saturday’s game at home against Seton Hall could help a lot.
Speaking of Seton Hall, the Pirates picked up a really nice win at Marquette, which has lost four of five. Seton Hall has a gauntlet of a final week of the regular season, but a win over Nova or Creighton grants Kevin Willard’s team its first regular season conference title since 1993.
TCU had its way with Baylor’s vaunted defense and scored 54 points in the second half to upset the 2nd-ranked Bears 75-72. Baylor’s now lost two of its last three and might be playing with fire when it comes to securing a No. 1 seed. Lunardi said nothing changed for the Bears, but there’s still a couple weeks to go. Combined with the two upsets in the ACC, Saturday was the 12th time this season that multiple AP Top 10 teams lost on the same day.
Oklahoma and Texas have been fighting for their bubble lives and both grabbed monster wins on the road. The Sooners, which entered the week on a three-game skid, followed up a nice home win against Texas Tech with Saturday’s beating of West Virginia in Morgantown. Oklahoma was on Lunardi’s Last Four In on Friday. Saturday’s win only helps the Sooners’ case. Texas meanwhile matched its border rival for the week. Topping West Virginia earlier in the week before beating the Red Raiders on Saturday. The Longhorns were in Lunardi’s Next Four Out last week. Tuesday’s basketball version of the Red River Shootout could be an elimination game.
Meanwhile West Virginia and Texas Tech need to wake up. The Mountaineers have now lost six of their last seven with the lone win in that span coming against Oklahoma State. Bob Huggins and his squad can get back on track in Ames against Iowa State on Tuesday, but the Mountaineers end the season against Baylor next Saturday.
The Red Raiders have lost three of five and visit Waco on Monday before hosting Kansas on Saturday. Rough. Texas Tech shouldn’t be in danger of missing the tournament, but it would be a much less nerve-racking two weeks if Chris Beard’s men could pick up a win this week.
Rutgers hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 (I wasn’t born yet). It looked as if the Scarlet Knights may finally end the longest active tournament drought among power conference teams (for perspective, DePaul has the second longest beginning in 2004), but a three-game skid has slid Rutgers down to Lunardi’s Last Four Byes. So still in, but not a lock just yet. Rutgers suffered a heartbreaking loss to Penn State last week after rallying from a big second half deficit, only to watch Myles Dread knock down a 3 in the final minute to give the Nittany Lions the win. The Scarlet Knights host Maryland on Tuesday and visit Purdue on Saturday. A five-game skid to end the year and a poor performance in the Big Ten Tournament might bite Rutgers.
Maryland, by the way, got smacked around by Michigan State at home. Cassius Winston scored 20 points to ensure the Spartans wouldn’t let a big win against the Terps slip away for a second time this year. Not only did Michigan State deny Maryland a share of the Big Ten title (at least for now), but the Spartans are now just a game back in the standings with two games remaining.
UCLA continues to make a push for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. After the Bruins beat Arizona State with a game-winning 3 earlier in the week, they beat Arizona at home 69-64 for their seventh straight win and ninth in their last ten games. Don’t look now, but the Bruins have a half-game lead for first place in the league (Oregon has a game in hand and a head-to-head win over UCLA). The Bruins entered the weekend in Lunardi’s First Four Out. USC was among the Last Four In. The two teams face off on Saturday. Hello, March.
USC picked up a good win over Arizona State on Saturday, which might’ve all but ended the Sun Devils tournament hopes. The Trojans can still sneak into one of the top four spots for the Pac-12 Tournament if Arizona State or Colorado stumble this week.
Congratulations to ETSU for clinching the SoCon regular season title with a win over Western Carolina on Saturday. Former Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes and Co. might be able to get into the tournament even without winning the conference tourney. Lunardi had the Bucs as a 10-seed entering the weekend and he said on ESPN on Tuesday that ETSU would be a team to watch that could steal an at-large bid.
On the opposite end of the state, Memphis kept its very faint tournament hopes alive by beating Tulane in overtime on Saturday. The Tigers were towards the bottom of Lunardi’s Next Four Out, but the final week of the regular season features a home game against Wichita State and a road trip to Houston. A sweep of two tournament teams would certainly help Memphis going into the AAC tourney.
Dayton continues to own the Atlantic 10 after beating Davidson 82-67 on Friday to move to 16-0 in league play. Anthony Grant’s team shot 72% from the field in the win. No, seriously. 72%. That’s a real stat. The Flyers have a chance to play for a No. 1 seed thanks to Baylor’s loss, but Wednesday’s road trip to Rhode Island won’t be easy.
Liberty blew its chance at an at-large bid with Saturday’s 77-71 loss at Lipscomb. The Flames are 27-4, but the severely weak strength of schedule just won’t get this team into the tournament. Liberty needs to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament. North Florida poses the biggest threat. Both teams are 13-3 in league play having split two meetings this year. They’ll also both play on Tuesday to conclude the regular season.
I had a chance to catch the Summit League’s finest earlier in the week with North Dakota State facing South Dakota State at the Scheels Center in Fargo. The last three meetings between these two rivals have been decided by five points or fewer. The Bison rallied in the second half to force overtime and scored the final three points of the game to beat the Jackrabbits 71-69 and claim the Summit League regular season title. The two schools have combined to win each conference tournament since 2012. That will likely continue this month.