No. 13 Tennessee trying to move focus to postseason
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee wants to make sure the jubilant atmosphere that followed its regular-season finale isn’t its last celebration.
The Volunteers rallied to beat Georgia 66-61 on Saturday to claim a share of their first Southeastern Conference regular-season title since 2008 . The accomplishment was particularly notable because the SEC’s preseason media poll had Tennessee finishing 13th in the 14-team league.
“I said to them after the game I am proud of them because they’ve worked, the put the work in and have done it,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “But I told them (that) if you like this, it can be better, and there’s more to be done.”
The next step for the 13th-ranked Volunteers (23-7, 13-5 SEC) is to change their history of frustration in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Tennessee is the No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament that begins Wednesday at St. Louis. The Vols will face either seventh-seeded Mississippi State (21-10, 9-9) or 10th-seeded LSU (17-13, 8-10) in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“We have another goal,” junior forward Admiral Schofield said after the Georgia game. “We have to go and take care of business in the tournament, which we haven’t won since 1979.”
Indeed, the only SEC teams that have gone longer without an SEC tournament title are South Carolina, Texas A&M and Missouri, which have never won it. The difference is that South Carolina wasn’t part of the SEC until 1991-92 while Texas A&M and Missouri just joined the league in 2012-13.
Since that 1979 title, Tennessee has advanced as far as the championship game only twice - an 89-69 loss to Alabama in 1991 and a 64-61 loss to Mississippi State in 2009.
Barnes figures to make sure Tennessee doesn’t spend the week dwelling on its regular-season title. Barnes said his personality doesn’t allow him to celebrate achievements perhaps as much as he should, even after receiving about 200 texts the last couple of days encouraging him to do just that.
“I got a lot of texts from people who tell me (to) enjoy this,” Barnes said. “I’ve never been really good at that, to be honest with you, because my mind’s always getting onto the next thing. I wish I were better at it, to be honest with you.”
A strong performance this week could give Tennessee a boost in its bid for a favorable NCAA Tournament seeding and the opportunity to play the first two rounds in Nashville, Tennessee, about a three-hour drive from its Knoxville campus.
That’s why the Vols were keeping their eyes focused on bigger prizes even as they celebrated their SEC title.
Tennessee knows it still has room for improvement.
Barnes noted Monday how Tennessee occasionally stands around too much on offense and that it’s a hard team to guard when the Vols have ideal player movement. The Vols need Schofield to maintain his hot streak that has enabled him to score at least 23 points in three straight games. They’re hoping leading scorer Grant Williams can stop the foul trouble that has limited him the last couple of weeks.
“We have a long way to go and a long rest of the season,” Williams said. “We are excited. It’s not over yet, that’s something that we need to keep telling ourselves. It’s something that we are going to keep telling ourselves. We are excited to see where it goes.”
More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee