A Tennessee team that you couldn’t trust for six weeks has become more reliable.
It wasn’t enough to upset No. 1 seed Alabama in the SEC Tournament semifinals Saturday in Nashville, but it gave the Vol Nation more hope that it has had since the Vols went 6-6 over a 12-game span.
In the past two weeks, Tennessee rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat Florida by 11, gigged the Gators by a dozen in a rematch, then led Alabama 48-33 a few minutes into the second half before collapsing.
As least the Vols (18-8) looked like a Final Four caliber team for 23 minutes against No. 6 Alabama.
At least coach Rick Barnes can feel more comfort heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee will find out it’s NCAA seeding and opponent tonight.
Then the fun begins.
“I like where our team is right now,’’ Barnes said after the Alabama defeat. “I am not afraid to play whoever we have to play because I know what this team is going to do. They are going to play their hearts out. They are going to go at it and that is all you can ask from them.’’
Tennessee was terrific in building a 15-point lead against Alabama, which the day before destroyed Mississippi State 85-48. The Vols were crisp on offense, active on defense, and intense.
When the early-second-half lead went to 15, the Vols fumbled and bumbled Alabama right back into the game, thanks to a 14-0 run. Several problems that plagued the Vols over a 12-game stretch reared their ugly head.
Tennessee had six turnovers in a 3:12 span, several on charges. They had no inside scoring presence, not with John Fulkerson sidelined by a concussion and facial fracture. And the lack of a true point guard was apparent.
The latter is one reason Barnes was two possessions late calling a timeout while the Crimson Tide was cutting UT’s lead to a single point. Without a point guard, Barnes can’t expect his team to play through adversity. It needs more help from the sideline.
Barnes was more timely to call a timeout during an Alabama run in the first half – and it worked. He wasn’t as prompt in the second half.
During Alabama’s run, the Tide got some friendly whistles. A ball clearly off the hands of Herbert Jones was awarded to Bama and Jones then scored on a 3-point play.
And when UT put Devonte Gaines on Jones in the final minute, Jones walked before missing a shot, then fouling Gaines. If the travel had been called, Gaines doesn’t get fouled and doesn’t miss two key free throws in the final 25 seconds.
The outcome also could have been different if UT wasn’t so sloppy with its ballhandling. It had 11 turnovers – several on charges – during the first 11:24 of the first half.
Freshman Keon Johnson is a gifted athlete who did some great things against Alabama – 20 points, nine rebounds – but his ballhandling is shaky. He had five turnovers.
Freshman Jaden Springer also had five turnovers as he too often drives his way into trouble. Still, he had 18 points.
Yet, even without Fulkerson, Tennessee had a great chance to beat Bama, thanks in part to a stingy defense that held Alabama to 37.3% shooting from the field and 7 of 28 from 3-point range.
“I think we guarded them as well as they’ve been guarded all year,’’ Barnes said.
Which is another reason Barnes isn’t afraid to play anyone in the NCAA Tournament.
“The competitiveness that we’re playing with and the determination and the prep in the last really two weeks has really gone to a level that we’re excited about,’’ Barnes said.
FULKERSON INJURY: Fulkerson might not be available for the NCAA Tournament, thanks to catching two elbows from Florida’s Omar Payne, which resulted in a Flagrant 2 foul and ejection.
While Payne apologized to Fulkerson, Yves Pons called it a “dirty play.’’
Payne is apparently a repeat offender based on comments from his coach, Mike White, who said Payne must show “more maturity’’ and greater “sportsmanship’’ that to throw two elbows at an opponent. White said Payne has had issues with that in the past.
Payne should be forced to miss as many games as Fulkerson, which could mean the entire NCAA Tournament.
SO YOU’RE A FAVORITE: Tennessee is 18-7 as a favorite this season. It was picked to win every game this season until the SEC tourney semifinals. Alabama was a 3-point favorite.
Alabama is 21-5 as a favorite.
Vanderbilt was a perfect 5-0 when favored. Two SEC teams lost only once as a favorite: LSU (13-1) and Texas A&M (7-1). Arkansas was 19-2.
Two teams had a losing record as a favorite: Kentucky (7-8) and South Carolina (4-5).
The others: Auburn (10-2) Georgia (6-2) Florida (11-4) Missouri (10-5) Mississippi State (9-5) Ole Miss (11-7).