Tennessee is the defending Southeastern Conference tournament champion.
But repeating isn’t as important to the fifth-seeded Volunteers as much as regaining their January form.
Tennessee, the No. 5 seed, will play its opener on Thursday afternoon in Nashville, Tenn., against No. 13 Ole Miss, which defeated No. 12 South Carolina 67-61 in a first-round game Wednesday night.
The Vols (22-9) climbed as high as No. 2 in the AP poll at the end of January but are No. 17 after losing six of their last 10 games. And now they’re getting ready to play their second game since starting point guard Zakai Zeigler sustained a season-ending knee injury.
Coach Rick Barnes talked to his team about “how fine a line (between) winning and losing is.”
“Sometimes you get some tough breaks,” Barnes continued, “other times you get some breaks.”
Tennessee could have earned a double-bye by defeating Auburn in its regular-season finale Saturday but dropped a 79-70 decision — its fifth consecutive road loss. Barnes said that starting play a day earlier and potentially playing an extra game in Nashville could be a benefit.
“I think that’s how you have to look at it,” Barnes said. “Whatever falls your way, you’ve got to look at it like, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s supposed to be and we’ve got to make the most of it.’”
In Zeigler’s absence, the Vols are leaning even more on All-SEC senior guard Santiago Vescovi, who was the primary point guard against Auburn.
Vescovi said Tennessee’s defense will be even more important the rest of the way. The Vols are third in the country in scoring defense (57.5 points per game) but have allowed an average of 63.6 in the last 10 games.
“We know we can be a lot better on defense,” Vescovi said. “We showed it during the whole season. That is something that we are going to have to fix.”
Ole Miss (12-20), which lost to Tennessee 63-59 on Dec. 28 in Oxford, Miss., is 2-2 since Win Case was elevated from assistant coach to acting head coach after the firing of Kermit Davis last month.
“In order to get to the NCAA Tournament, you’ve got to win the first one,” Case told the SEC Network, “and we did that tonight.”
Against South Carolina, Amaree Abram came off the bench to score 20 points, shooting 7 of 11 from the floor, including 5 of 8 on 3-pointers. That helped the Rebels overcome an uncharacteristic performance by leading scorer Matthew Murrell, who had just four points on 2 of 10 from the field and missed all four of his four 3-pointers.
“There’s no pressure,” Abram said. “Coach allows us to play freely and take whatever shot we want.”
Jaemyn Brakefield added 16 points, James White had 10 points and 10 rebounds, and the Rebels’ reserves outscored the Gamecocks’ bench 22-3.
–Field Level Media
“I feel like we’ve got momentum,” Brakefield said. “We came in here knowing nobody wanted to play us in the first round. We have a chip on our shoulder. We’re going to turn our focus to Tennessee and learn from when we played them (the first time).”