It’s already been quite the season for the Tennessee men’s basketball team.
The Vols have accumulated several key wins, an impressive overall record, and a suitable SEC mark to go with it, but there’s still plenty of work to be done in conference play. Both Tennessee fans and sports bettors across multiple states, such as those already engaged in sports betting and those still waiting to use platforms like Caesars Sportsbook Ohio once it launches, are keeping tabs on the team.
Tennessee could either sink or swim through the rest of SEC play. So the big question remains: can the Vols finish strong in the SEC?
Why Tennessee Might Finish Strong
The Vols aren’t new to this type of situation.
Since head coach Rick Barnes took control of the program in 2015, Tennessee has grown from an also-ran team to a legitimate contender in its conference. The Vols won a share of the 2017-18 SEC regular-season title in Barnes’s third season and then finished in second place in the conference his fourth season.
So much of succeeding in college basketball is winning in your conference, and Barnes has helped bring that to Tennessee. While the Vols haven’t always finished as high in conference play as fans would hope under Barnes, he’s brought a culture of consistently fighting for the SEC title to the program. A longtime college hoops coach, he knows what it takes to win conference titles.
Auburn, led by former Vols coach Bruce Pearl, and Kentucky have dominated the SEC standings so far this season. The Vols, meanwhile, have nested near the upper third of the standings, but they are looking to do better in the regular season’s final stretch.
And it’s not just Barnes’ work on the bench that can help Tennessee accomplish its goal. The Vols have proved themselves as a resourceful team capable of getting production out of nearly every member of the rotation.
While guards Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler headline the Vols’ scoring efforts, big men like Uros Plavsic and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield have shown up at key moments. John Fulkerson, who became a hometown hero for Tennessee fans the past few years, has struggled this season but still boasts the potential to take over games when needed.
The Vols lost junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua to a season-ending left ankle injury earlier this month, but their roster still has plenty of depth and weapons to finish its SEC slate with a bang.
Why Tennessee Might Not Finish Strong
Though Tennessee has mostly succeeded so far this season, its upcoming matchups could prove too much for this scrappy Vols squad to handle.
The last leg of the Vols’ regular-season SEC slate includes bouts with Kentucky and Auburn, the conference’s top two teams. The Wildcats blew out the Vols, 107-79, at Rupp Arena earlier in the season. Few teams have been able to crack the code of beating the Tigers, who are led by 7-foot-1 forward Walker Kessler, the SEC’s leader in blocks-per-game and one of the conference’s best rebounders.
When it comes to Auburn, the fact that Pearl is on the Tigers’ bench is a negative for the Vols. Pearl was a fan-favorite with Tennessee before the school unceremoniously fired him amid a recruiting scandal, and he’s made the most of his second chance by turning Auburn into one of college basketball’s best teams.
Losing one game won’t derail Tennessee’s season, but if the Vols can’t pull out wins against lesser conference opponents and also lose to the Tigers, it could prove fatal to their hopes of finishing well in the SEC.
The Vols also are without a definitive superstar, which can be a key component of title-winning teams. While Vescovi and Chandler can be deadly scorers, and Tennessee has several options available in the post, no player has come forward to be the team’s true leader. That’s been a problem for the team all season.
Chandler and Huntley-Hatfield, both freshmen, represent the program’s future and could become superstars in the coming years. They’re too young and inexperienced to truly lead the roster right now, though, and with no veterans having stepped into the ace role for Tennessee, it could be to the team’s detriment as it tries to navigate wins against tough SEC foes.