For the first time since 2010 Tennessee basketball has made it to semifinal Saturday in the SEC tournament.
The Vols dismantled the South Carolina Gamecocks Friday afternoon 59-44, giving them their fifth straight victory, all of which they’ve led wire-to-wire.
While a win over South Carolina, who entered Friday’s game 14-19, it’s still big for the Vols for two reasons. First, a loss to a team with that bad of a resume would’ve killed Tennessee’s tournament chances in one shot. Secondly, the Vols have been notorious for underperforming in the SEC tournament over the past several years. Although Friday still wasn’t one of their more spectacular performances, a win is a win and a much needed confidence booster moving forward.
The only thing that really went well for the Vols was Jarnell Stokes’ 22 point-15 rebound performance, coupled with a couple of Jordan McRae top 10 worthy flushes.
After his hot streak over the past few games, Antonio Barton cooled off significantly Friday afternoon as he finished with only one point and not hitting a single shot from the field. He had been really key in opening up the Vols’ offense down the stretch, and will need to find his stroke again if they hope to advance any further.
Tennessee will now face the Florida Gators on Saturday afternoon for the third time this season. The first time they met in Gainesville, Fla., the Gators pounded the Vols 67-41. When the two met again in Knoxville, Tenn., Florida prevailed again but had to work a little harder for it as they beat the Vols 67-58.
Like the Vols, Florida completely manhandled the Missouri Tigers in their first game of the tournament. Led in scoring by Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators blasted the Tigers 72-49.
While Tennessee has won five-straight, six of their last seven, Florida has won 24-straight with their last loss coming on Dec. 2 against Connecticut. If the Vols have any hope of ending that they’ll have to continue to have success running their offense through Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, while getting added help from the guards outside.
Barton quite possibly may be the determining factor for the Vols. If he can play at the level he had to finish the regular season, Tennessee could make their first SEC tournament title game since 2009. However, if he continues to struggle, putting added stress on Stokes and McRae to perform again, it could allow Florida to cruise to their fourth tournament title and first since winning three-in-a-row from 2005-2007.
While a loss to the No. 1 Gators won’t hurt the Vols’ resume in the slightest form, a win could solidify them in the tournament regardless of what happens around the rest of the country before Selection Sunday arrives.
Tennessee and Florida will tip-off from the Georgia Dome at 1 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ABC.