The Starting Five: Vols Roll Into Final Week Of Regular Season

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    Lean Towards Tennessee (+950) To Win The SEC

    After each week of the season that Tennessee plays at least two games, “The Starting Five” will analyze the previous week of play from the Big Orange while highlighting questions Tennessee is facing in the coming weeks in five subheadings.

    Tennessee went 2-0 on the week, bouncing back from last week’s loss at Arkansas with a dominant win at Missouri and its second top five win of the season, knocking off No. 3 Auburn.

    Now, on to the starting five.

    SEC Title Is In Play

    Tennessee entered Saturday needing two results to happen for them to have a realistic shot at earning a share of the SEC title entering the final week of the regular season.

    First, Tennessee needed Arkansas to knock off Kentucky in Fayetteville and then it needed to take care of business against Auburn. The Razorbacks did their part, withstanding a second half Kentucky push to knock off the Wildcats.

    Tennessee took care of business against the third-ranked Tigers to move a game back of Auburn with two games left. The Tigers are 13-3 in conference play and hold a one-game lead over Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas.

    I took a deep dive into Tennessee’s chances of earning a share of the conference title thanks to KenPom probabilities here, but long-story short is that the Vols need to win out and need Auburn to trip up.

    The Tigers — who have struggled on the road as of late — travel to Starkville to face Mississippi State Wednesday before concluding the regular season against South Carolina at Auburn Arena Saturday.

    The chances of Auburn losing a game and Tennessee winning out to clinch a share of the conference title is 27.7%. If the Vols were to do so, they would be the one-seed in the SEC Tournament thanks to holding the tiebreaker over Auburn and Kentucky.

    The Brandon Huntley-Hatfield Tennessee’s Been Waiting For

    Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has been patient with freshman power forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield this season. The five-star recruit has struggled to find consistency, seeing mostly limited minutes as his defense has struggled.

    Barnes’ patience paid off this week as Huntley-Hatfield gave the Vols exactly what they’d been looking for: physicality. 

    Huntley-Hatfield is not a freshman that needed to come in and completely change his body. Like anyone, there were areas of improvement needed but the Clarkesville native didn’t need to lose an abundance of weight or add a ton of strength.

    The 6-foot-10, 246 pound freshman has had the strength and physicality needed to play at this level all season. If the last two games were any indication, we’re starting to see him figure that out.

    Huntley-Hatfield totaled 14 rebounds in 38 minutes of play this week. The freshman hadn’t played more than 28 minutes in back-to-back conference games all season.

    The talented forward didn’t back down against one of the nation’s best front courts, out rebounding Auburn’s Walker Kessler and playing some of his best defense of the season.

    RTI’s own Ric Butler grabbed this video about three possessions into the game and I thought it was really telling.

    This clip is everything we haven’t seen from Huntley-Hatfield for much of the season, emotion on the court, physicality and an attitude of not backing down no matter who is across from him.

    The 11 points Huntley-Hatfield gave Tennessee this week: the put back dunks at Missouri, the game changing three against Auburn — that’s all great. But, you trade all of that for the physicality and toughness Huntley-Hatfield showed this week. That is what Rick Barnes has been asking for all season. The seventh-year head coach’s patience seems to be paying off at the most important time of year.

    “You never know when the light comes on for someone,” Barnes said of Huntley-Hatfield Saturday. “It can happen like that but very seldom does. Brandon in the last couple weeks has been so locked in to our scouting reports. He came in early on his own wanting to continue to know exactly what he had to do today. … The way he got his hands on basketballs, I thought he was key.”

    If this really is Huntley-Hatfield turning a corner and not just a two-game abnomally, then Tennessee’s potential has changed with his and, fellow freshman, Jonas Aidoo’s growth.

    P.S. — If you haven’t checked out Ric’s Gameday Arena Experience video, check it out.

    Can Tennessee Continue Rematch Success?

    One of the greatest strengths of the Rick Barnes era is how well the Vols have played in regular season rematches.

    Each season, SEC teams play five conference opponents twice setting up five regular season rematches each year.

    Since 2018 — Barnes’ third season — Tennessee is 18-5 in regular season rematches. The Vols have certainly benefited from playing South Carolina and Vanderbilt twice every season, but the Vols are 4-1 in rematches with Kentucky over that span and also have rematch wins over Florida (2019 and 2021).

    The Vols are 4-0 in their rematch games this season and they’ll look to make it a perfect 5-0 Saturday against Arkansas. 

    With Tennessee facing bottom feeding Georgia on Tuesday it’s hard not to look ahead to the highly contested rematch.

    Arkansas and Tennessee are the conference’s two hottest teams with the Razorbacks losing just once and Tennessee losing just twice since the third week of the SEC season. 

    On top of the championship possibilities, the Saturday showdown will have a major impact on SEC Tournament seeding. More on that below.

    What Seed Is Tennessee Looking At For SEC Tournament?

    Tennessee has locked up a top-four finish in the SEC and the subsequent double bye in next week’s SEC Tournament. Still, the Vols could finish at any spot one through four, so what are the most likely seeds?

    Let’s say everything goes by the chalk this week. Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee each go 2-0 and finish the season on a high note.

    Auburn would hang on to the one seed, Tennessee would be the two seed and Kentucky would be the three seed.

    If Auburn and Kentucky go 2-0 this week, but Tennessee falls to Arkansas, the Vols will be a four-seed in Tampa.

    If Tennessee wins both of its games this week and either Mississippi State or South Carolina upsets Auburn, then the Vols will be a one-seed in the SEC Tournament.

    So, what is the scenario in which Tennessee falls to a three-seed? It’s pretty unlikely. Tennessee would have to lose to Georgia on Tuesday and Arkansas would have to lose to LSU before the Vols’ defeat Arkansas on Saturday.

    The other possibility that would land Tennessee as the three-seed is if the Vols beat Georgia, lost to Arkansas and Kentucky lost to either Ole Miss or Florida. In that case, Auburn would be the one-seed, Arkansas would be the two-seed, Tennessee would be the three-seed and Kentucky would be the four-seed.

    So, a brief recap. If Tennessee wins out this week they’ll either be the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, depending on if Auburn runs the table.

    If Tennessee loses to Arkansas, they’ll be the four-seed unless Ole Miss or Florida upset Kentucky.

    * A note on tiebreakers: the first tie breaker is head-to-head record, whether that’s a two-way or three-way tie. That’s why Tennessee would hold a three way tie breaker over Kentucky and Auburn, combining for a 2-1 record against the teams.

    The second tie breaker is your record against the top team in the conference. This is why Tennessee would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Kentucky and Arkansas would have the head-to-head tiebreaker over Tennessee.

    The Vols beat Auburn while Kentucky lost to Auburn. Tennessee and Arkansas both beat Auburn, but the Razorbacks’ 1-0 record against Kentucky would place them above Tennessee’s 1-1 record.

    How Banged Up Are These Vols?

    At this time of year, every team in America is banged up to some degree.

    John Fulkerson is dealing with a hip pointer he suffered at Arkansas and sidelined him for 34 minutes at Missouri. 

    Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James are also banged up as well. Zeigler was limited at the Vols’ open practice last week and James was wearing tape on his knee against Auburn.

    Barnes said as much about the injuries Monday, stating that all three are banged up and that Tennessee has, and will, continue to limit their practice workload as time goes on.

    “We will probably have to manage some,” Barnes said. “The one thing is, maybe playing Tuesday this week will give us a little more time. This time of year, I believe we all have to manage that. It is a concern, and I think you saw in the game Saturday, the three guys we had to manage were a little sluggish to start the game, which you would expect. I am a big believer in that when you get in a rhythm and that rhythm gets broken, it might be subtle, but sometimes it takes you a little bit longer. All three of those guys got better as the game went on.”

    The nagging pain/injuries to James, Zeigler and Fulkerson are not massive and they likely won’t miss any games because of it, but it is something to pay attention to with the season winding down.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.