Tennessee coach Rick Barnes continues to stress how resilient his Volunteers have been in handling injuries.
That resiliency will be tested Saturday afternoon in the Southeastern Conference regular-season finale at Auburn.
The 12th-ranked Vols (22-8, 11-6 SEC) are without starting point guard Zakai Zeigler as they try to clinch a top-four finish in conference and double bye in the SEC tournament.
A win over the Tigers (19-11, 9-8) will assure them of that, but a loss leaves them in jeopardy of the league’s tie-breaking process depending on how Missouri fares against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt does against Mississippi State this weekend. They are tied at 10-7 in the conference.
The Vols could earn a No. 3 seed if Kentucky loses at Arkansas on Saturday.
The loss of Zeigler to a season-ending knee injury in Tuesday night’s 75-57 win over Arkansas complicates the Vols’ prospects. He is one of four Vols scoring in double figures but perhaps more key than his 10.3 average are his league-leading 5.4 assists a game and his team-best 59 steals.
Replacing him may take multiple players.
“We’ll do it, I guess, by committee,” Barnes said. “That’s how you look at it. We’ve always done it that way the last couple of years.”
The workload will fall to backcourt mate Santiago Vescovi, the Vols’ leading scorer (12.4 points per game), and part-time starters Tyreke Key (8.1) and Jahmai Mashack (4.3). Key has missed the last two games with an ankle injury but Mashack had five assists to go with six points in the win over Arkansas.
“I thought Jahmai Mashack did a good job handling the ball for us when he was in there,” Barnes said.
Auburn may have injury issues of its own after its 90-85 overtime loss at Alabama on Wednesday night. Backup center Dylan Caldwell could sit after suffering an apparent ankle injury late in the game.
Caldwell’s injury was just one of many physical plays that left Auburn coach Bruce Pearl upset after the game.
“He got hit,” Pearl said in his post-game press conference. “He just didn’t fall down.”
In his radio interview immediately after the game Pearl was more emotional.
“I’m just sick and tired of our guys getting smashed down there,” he said before slamming his headset to the floor. “Smashed!”
The Tigers were whistled for 29 personal fouls and lost starters Johni Broome, Jaylin Williams and Allen Flanigan to fouls. Alabama was called for 20 fouls.
Pearl said the Tigers went into the game with the notion they needed a win to assure themselves of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They played with an urgency in building a 17-point lead with under 11 minutes left, but the game ended up added to a list of disappointments over the last month that include a 46-43 loss at Tennessee in their first meeting.
“Our guys have been through a lot,” Pearl said. “I don’t know that I’ve had this many close losses against so many great teams. So I’m really proud of our guys.”
–Field Level Media