After Tennessee’s loss to Auburn Saturday afternoon on the road, the Vols’ SEC Tournament seeding is officially locked in. Tennessee (22-9, 11-7 SEC) will be the No. 5 seed in the upcoming tournament set for Nashville and will begin the week with a game on Thursday. The Vols will take on either No. 13 Ole Miss or No. 12 South Carolina.
While Tennessee was not able to secure the coveted double-bye in the tournament, there can still be a glass-half-full way of looking at things. After the Vols lost star point guard Zakai Zeigler to a season-ending injury last week, it could be beneficial for Tennessee to have a little more time on the court – in a game scenario – to figure out how to gel in the most competitive of situations.
“But yeah, you could look at it (that way),” Barnes said last week about the potential upside of playing an extra game in the SEC Tournament without the double-bye. “And I think that’s how you have to look at it. Whatever falls your way, you’ve got to look at it like, hey, this is the way it’s supposed to be and we’ve got to make the most of it.”
In Tennessee’s one and only game without Zeigler so far, Santiago Vescovi shouldered most of the load for the Volunteers. The veteran senior guard exploded for 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting in 39 of the 40 minutes in the game against the Tigers on Saturday. While Vescovi, Jahmai Mashack, and Josiah-Jordan James started the game for Tennessee, the Vols and Rick Barnes only used one guard off the bench in the entire 40-minute contest – Tyreke Key.
Key found his stride while returning from injury, finishing the game with 13 points in 23 minutes on the court. James scored 10 points in 26 minutes and Mashack scored two points in 12 minutes. The Auburn game was indicative that Tennessee will run a platoon guard lineup, but that Vescovi is Tennessee’s top and most important option with the ball.
With all of that happening, that leaves two more players to talk about with only tournament games left on Tennessee’s schedule: freshman point guard B.J. Edwards and four-star early enrollee Freddie Dilione. While Dilione has been enrolled and with the Tennessee basketball team since mid-January, Barnes doesn’t have any intention to play the North Carolina native this season.
“No, huh uhh,” Barnes said on the Friday before Auburn about if Dilione could see minutes with Zeigler’s injury. “I think BJ (Edwards) has done a good job for us. He’s one of the guys we really do have confidence in. As it gets later in the year, obviously as you guys know, the possessions become very valuable. But he’s handled himself well and we have confidence in him. Again, we know that we’ve got him and he’ll do his job in terms of getting ready. He’ll prepare the right way.”
More from RTI: The Official 2023 Men’s SEC Tournament Bracket
Edwards, a former Knoxville high school standout that has seen action in 13 games this year, found a handful of minutes in recent games against South Carolina, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Missouri. Edwards is averaging 1.3 points in 4.5 minutes per game this season.
“I’m not saying he’s going to fill in,” Barnes said about Edwards replacing an injured Zeigler. “That’s a lot of minutes. I’m saying he’s a guy that we know we’re not afraid to put out there. Where he’s improved is he’s learned a lot of things. The first thing that all these guys have to learn to do is how to practice the right way everyday. What goes into playing at this level. There’s a lot that we ask from our guys. He’s been great at that, he’s been a great teammate and I think he’s learned a great deal. I think he would tell you one of the great advantages that he’s had is getting to guard Zakai and Santi everyday. He has from day one.
“All summer [Edwards] had to go up against Zakai and then once Santi got back, had to guard a different kind of player. Through all that I think he’s kept his head up and continued to learn. He’s been really coachable. He knows like all of us, we’ve all got to get better. Maturity wise, the one thing I like about him, as coaches we’d all agree that I don’t think he’s been overwhelmed by going into the games. We don’t really think too many things affect him. All of that put together is why we’ve got confidence in him.”
Barnes said all of that about Edwards on the Friday before the Auburn game, a contest in which Tennessee did not play the Knoxville freshman. Still, though, Barnes’s answer shows that Tennessee does have confidence in their young guard. Whether it’s enough confidence to play him in a critical tournament game, that’s to be found out.
Five-seed Tennessee will take on either No. 13 Ole Miss or No.12 South Carolina in the second round of the SEC basketball tournament this upcoming Thursday in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The game will tip-off at 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT.