4-seed Tennessee is back in action on Saturday afternoon of the SEC Tournament. The Vols will face 1-seed Alabama in the semifinals at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN as they look to advance to the SEC Championship game for the third consecutive tournament.
The Vols (18-7, 11-7 SEC) enter the contest coming off a 78-66 win over 5-seed Florida on Friday afternoon in Nashville. Yves Pons turned in a historic defensive performance, blocking a program-record nine shots, to lead the Vols past the Gators despite John Fulkerson leaving the game early in the second half due to injury.
Sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi led the way for Tennessee with 14 points, while Keon Johnson chipped in 13 points, respectively. Josiah-Jordan James dropped in 12 points, and Jaden Springer and Yves Pons scored 11 points apiece.
Alabama (22-6, 16-2 SEC) is coming off a dominating 85-48 win over Mississippi State in its opening game of the tournament. The Crimson Tide were led by guard Jahvon Quinerly who scored 14 points off the bench, while fellow guard Jaden Shackelford added 13 points. Alabama shot 49% in winning its fourth consecutive game.
Tennessee trails the all-time series with Alabama, 70-80, dating to 1914. In SEC Tournament games, the Tide own a 10-5 edge on the Vols. Alabama defeated the Vols, 71-63, in Knoxville on Jan. 2. It was UT’s first loss of the season.
A win over Alabama would give Tennessee three straight appearances in the SEC Tournament championship game, give the Vols a 7-4 record in SEC Tournament games under Rick Barnes and stand as Tennessee’s eighth Quad 1 victory of the season.
Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributors Trey Wallace and Blake Von Hagen, make their predictions for Friday afternoon’s SEC Tournament game between the Vols and Gators:
Alabama’s style of play has proven to be Rick Barnes’ lone kryptonite during his tenure in Knoxville. The fast-paced, get up and down the floor style of play doesn’t matchup well with Barnes’ preferred old-school style of play that he tends to lean on. That’s not a diss on Barnes’ system, it’s worked out well over his career and at Tennessee as well, but against teams that want to get a three or layup within seconds of their possession, it hasn’t turned out well for the Vols. It’s why Alabama, Auburn and LSU have been the three schools that have given Barnes the most problems.
And now Tennessee must try and knock off the top-seeded Crimson Tide without its most important player because Florida’s Omar Payne took it upon himself to whack John Fulkerson with a couple of elbows. I thought Alabama would beat Tennessee prior to the tournament if each team ended up matching up and here we are. I simply don’t trust Tennessee’s offense enough to keep pace with Alabama’s. If the Vols win, it’s going to have to be on the defensive end.
I will say this, however. In a weird way, it may prove to be beneficial that Fulkerson has to miss today’s game. It’ll force Barnes to go smaller, which I believe the Vols are better suited to beat Alabama in that manner. Against the Crimson Tide in the first matchup, Tennessee nearly came back to beat them with Fulkerson on the bench and a smaller lineup of Pons at the five surrounded by a mixture of Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson, Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey Jr. and Josiah-Jordan James.
Pick: Alabama, 73-65
MVP: Alabama senior forward Herb Jones
Although Tennessee may be better suited to roll with a smaller lineup against Alabama, it’ll miss Fulkerson’s length and activity against the SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in Herb Jones.
The Vols are coming off a nice win over Florida, where Yves Pons had a record breaking 9 blocks and the team had five players in double-digits. This will be an even harder test for Tennessee if John Fulkerson cannot play, after sustaining an injury off a cheap elbow from Omar Payne. This group showed they could handle things on Saturday when things got heated. The Vols will need the freshman to step up even further on Saturday. This has got to be a game plan of attacking king the basket and getting the Tide in foul trouble.
Pick: Tennessee, 76-71
MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer
I am going with Jaden Springer in this game. If the freshman can get to the basket and finish off plays at the FT line, then Tennessee will have some success on Saturday. Look for both of the younger players to step up for their teammates.
Tennessee shot 32% from the floor in its 71-63 loss to Alabama in January. The Vols are going to need a much better performance if they want to hang around with the Crimson Tide in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament on Saturday afternoon. Alabama has a shot at grabbing one of the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and is coming off an emphatic 85-48 blowout over Mississippi State in the quarterfinals. They are the top-ranked defense in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings and are capable of getting hot on the other end of the court.
The Vols had one of their better offensive performances on Friday, dishing out 21 assists in their 78-66 win over Florida. They likely lost senior forward John Fulkerson for the rest of the tournament in the process, though. Tennessee is still capable of competing with Alabama using a small-ball lineup, but the Crimson Tide have just been too good this season and they are coming off one of their best outings. They have length that is going to bother Tennessee and they also get more bench production. Fulkerson’s absence will leave the Vols vulnerable in the paint.
Pick: Alabama, 78-68
MVP: Alabama senior guard John Petty Jr.
Petty has killed Tennessee throughout his career and led the Crimson Tide in scoring in the lone regular season meeting. He will be well-rested after only playing 19 minutes on Friday.