Tennessee is well aware what time of year it is. As Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes puts it, this is the time of year where teams separate from one another.
“I think everybody is desperate this time of year if you want to talk about wins, because we know how hard they are to get whether you are home or on the road,” Barnes said before practice on Thursday. “I would like to think they know what is at stake this time of year.”
Barnes may not want to completely admit it publicly, but the Vols are desperate for wins with their NCAA Tournament hopes on the line. At 14-10 on the season and 6-5 in conference play, Tennessee isn’t currently predicted to make the big dance in the major bracket projections. According to BracketMatrix.com, the Vols are only projected to make the tournament by two sites out of several dozen in the matrix.
From a glass half full perspective, Tennessee has won two out of its last three games. From a glass half empty perspective, UT has lost four of the last six games.
Regardless of how the Vols are received, they’re coming off of an impressive 82-61 win over Arkansas on Tuesday. Now they’re headed to Columbia, South Carolina for a date with the Gamecocks at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday night.
“I think there is a misconception about South Carolina that they like to play slow and grind it, which they can do that,” Barnes said. “They are playing much faster.
“Their guards are playing really well. They just run a little spread game, where they are doing a great job of working the elbow area and cutting and playing right there. They are getting good guard play, getting good play from everyone. They are a team that you have to defend them in transition.”
South Carolina and Tennessee have already played once this season. Back on Jan. 11, the Vols edged out a 56-55 win thanks to John Fulkerson drawing a charge in the closing seconds to seal the win. Fulkerson led the Vols with a double-double, scoring a team-high 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
The Gamecocks have won five of their last seven games since losing in Knoxville. During that stretch, Frank Martin’s squad has picked up key wins over Kentucky at home and Arkansas on the road.
“This time of year, they are coming into being the kind of team that Frank (Martin) felt they would be when the season started,” Barnes said. “They are getting some really good play from a lot of different players.”
Malik Kotsar, who scored a team-high 17 points in the previous match-up with the Vols, has been rolling of late. The senior forward ranks third on the team in scoring (10.3), second in assists (2.1), and first in rebounding (6.4), blocks (1.1), and steals (1.6).
“I have great admiration for guys that get better,” Barnes said of Kotsar. “I can tell you the best compliment I could give him is I would love to coach him.
“He is playing a little bit more, doing a little bit more away from the basket — a lot like what (John Fulkerson) is doing. They are giving him some space to work in, and he is going to work that way. He is shooting the ball. He has improved a lot and has put himself in position to where he is going to have a nice career when he is done there.”
With Kotsar anchoring the post, sophomore guard A.J. Lawson leads South Carolina in scoring at 14.0 points per game. In addition to Lawson, freshman guard Jermaine Couisnard has played a pivotal role. Couisnard was named the SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday after averaging 23.5 points per game last week against Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Tennessee enters Saturday’s pivotal matchup with injury concerns sprinkled throughout their rotation.
Freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James has missed the last four games due to a groin injury. James practiced on Thursday, but he’s still listed as day-to-day and could miss Saturday’s contest. In addition, Jalen Johnson has not felt well the last couple of days according to Barnes. Fulkerson and Yves Pons weren’t feeling great during Tuesday’s win over Arkansas, but both should be fine against the Gamecocks.