5-seed Tennessee begins its NCAA Tournament run on Friday afternoon in Indianapolis against 12-seed Oregon State. The Vols and Beavers are scheduled to tip at 4:30 p.m. ET on TNT. The winner will advance to Sunday’s round of 32 and play either 4-seed Oklahoma State or 13-seed Liberty.
The Vols (18-8, 10-7 SEC) enter the contest coming off a two-game stint at the SEC Tournament. In Nashville, Tennessee defeated Florida 78-66 on Friday afternoon before falling to eventual SEC champion Alabama on Saturday by a score of 73-68.
Tennessee will likely be without senior forward John Fulkerson to begin the NCAA Tournament. Against the Gators, Florida’s Omar Payne elbowed Fulkerson in the throat, and then in the face early in the second half. Fulkerson collapsed and left the game with a facial injury and concussion. He had a facial procedure on Sunday and is considered “day-to-day” moving forward.
Oregon State (17-12, 10-10 Pac-12) is coming off a Pac-12 title that saw them win three consecutive games to win the conference tournament and head to the NCAA Tournament. The Beavers defeated UCLA 83-79 in overtime, Oregon 75-64 and Colorado 70-68 to advance to the big dance.
Tennessee is 1-3 against Oregon State all-time, but have not faced the Beavers since 1990. The Vols’ and Beavers’ only common opponent this season is Colorado. Tennessee defeated Colorado, 56-47, in its season opener Dec. 8. Oregon State lost twice to Colorado during the regular season, but then defeated the Buffaloes in the Pac-12 championship game, 70-68.
The Vols are making their 23rd all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They are 22- 23 (.489) during the big dance, compiling records of 1-0 in the First Four, 13-6 in first-round games, 7-8 in second-round games, 1-0 in third-round action, 1-7 in regional semifinals, 0-1 in regional finals and 0-1 in the now-defunct regional consolation round. This is Tennessee’s third NCAA berth under sixth-year head coach Rick Barnes. Tennessee’s 22 NCAA Tournament berths tie LSU for third-most among SEC teams.
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:
Tennessee’s opening game of the NCAA Tournament is yet another Tennessee basketball in which the Vols “should” win. But we all know how “should” win games have gone this season when it comes to this basketball team. The Vols are the superior team with more talent, but we also know the Vols will find a way to make life tough on themselves at some point.
Still, Tennessee will win this basketball game. Although it came up short in the SEC Tournament, it appeared the Vols turned a corner and is on the verge of playing their best basketball of the season. Friday’s opener of the big dance will prove that as long as the Vols limit their turnovers and don’t allow the Beavers to explode from the three-point line.
Pick: Tennessee, 70-65
MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson
Johnson is a big reason it appears Tennessee is on the verge of playing its best basketball of the season. His offense and defense was tremendous in Nashville. Barnes then discussed how he’s taken a step forward as a leader with his voice. Johnson will have a big game against the Beavers.
Well, it’s finally here. The Vols will likely be without John Fulkerson today, so the lineup will look like it did against Alabama. This means it will be key for Josiah-Jordan James to attack the basket and play solid defense at the 4 spot. Keon Johnson will be key for the Vols on defense, especially if he’s guarding Ethan Thompson, who is shooting 40% from the field this season. The Beavers will try to get Yves Pons into foul trouble around the basket, so he will need help in the paint. Jarod Lucas has the ability to get hot from the perimeter, so the Vols will need to guard the off-ball screen better this weekend.
Tennessee will win this game if they can play fast in transition and attack the rim. The Vols can’t afford the four minute scoring droughts that have plagued them this season. It’s all about forcing turnovers and not settling for horrible shots. This is the type of game the Vols should win and I expect them to clamp down on the defensive end.
Pick: Tennessee, 77-68
MVP: Tennessee sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James
He might not lead Tennessee in points, but I expect Triple-J to have a big game in the paint and on the boards. This feels like the type of game that he can let out his “inner monster” and be a huge factor. I like the matchup he’s likely to have on defense and if he can find his sweet spot on the floor, he could be the X factor for the Vols.
Having six days off was the worst thing that could have happened to Oregon State. The Beavers had a ton of momentum last weekend, propelling them to an improbable NCAA Tournament berth. Tennessee is now fortunate enough to face the weakest 12-seed in the field. The Vols were decent down the stretch of the regular season and in the SEC Tournament, but lulls on the offensive end remain a concern. They went through a dry spell against Alabama in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament and the Crimson Tide took advantage.
Luckily for Tennessee, Oregon State does not possess that kind of firepower and the Pac-12 generally does not perform well in the Big Dance. The Beavers have a ton of experience and length, but they only shoot 34.6% from the 3-point line. They also play at one of the slowest paces in the country, making them an ideal matchup for a Rick Barnes team. Tennessee remains one of the best defensive teams in college basketball and will have much more talent on Friday afternoon. The Vols will probably hit a rough patch on offense at some point, but they have more than enough weapons to get past an Oregon State team that is a fugazi.
Pick: Tennessee, 68-58
MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer
I think Springer might become the leader of this team during the NCAA Tournament. He has taken over at the end of several games this season and will be an athletic nightmare for Oregon State.