Here's where we stand as of Thursday night in the SEC: Florida still leads at 12-3, but both Alabama and Kentucky are now still alive at 11-4, and both have a game remaining against the Gators. Alabama beat Kentucky earlier in Tuscaloosa, so UK would need an additional Crimson Tide loss to win the league.
The good news for Tennessee is the SEC Tournament tiebreaker procedure: head-to-head first, then best record against the top seed and on down. If Florida goes on to win the league, Tennessee would own tiebreakers against both Alabama and Kentucky. We would need to win out and need Bama and UK to lose two of three to catch them; Alabama is at Florida Saturday, at Ole Miss Tuesday, then hosts Georgia to finish. Kentucky is at Arkansas, at Georgia, and home to Florida. Anything can happen, and there is an argument that suggests we want both Bama and Kentucky to do well because it helps our NCAA Tournament profile, which is more important than SEC Tournament seeding...but I would continue to argue if we take care of our own business, we'll be just fine on Selection Sunday.
The Vols are still a game behind Ole Miss (10-5) as well in the league standings; the Rebels are at Mississippi State (losers of 13 in a row), home to Alabama, and at LSU. Because they swept us, they would win any tiebreaker, so we'd need them to lose twice to pass them. (By the way, there's a possibility we could see this bunch on Friday in Nashville if one of us finishes 4th and the other 5th, which is what would happen if the season ended right now. I desire this outcome with great passion.)
You've also got Missouri, going to 9-6 like us as long as they hold onto this 21 point lead at South Carolina. We can take care of them ourselves. Should the Vols lose, LSU and Arkansas are lurking just a game back. But if we win out, we're no worse than 5th.
The next step toward that goal is the last misstep we took. The Georgia Bulldogs handed us our most disappointing loss of the season way back on February 6. Jay titled that post Getting Used to Disappointment. Three weeks later, we're getting used to something much brighter.
If Trae Golden is the most important piece of Tennessee's puzzle these last six games, then the first thing we should mention about the first game is Golden's absence. With our point guard on the bench with a hamstring injury, we turned it over 14 times and shot just 3 of 11 from the arc. But the real culprit was defense: Georgia shot 50% from the floor and 55% from the arc in the win, led by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 24 on 9 of 12 and 5 of 7 from three.
In the six game win streak, however, the Vol defense has returned: Tennessee is allowing just 40.6% from the floor in the last three weeks. And the Vols have done a much better job on signature perimeter scorers like Archie Goodwin, Elston Turner or the entire Florida backcourt. With Golden back in the fray, it'll be interesting to see if Cuonzo Martin elects to put Josh Richardson on KCP instead of the point guard position.
Tennessee lost to Georgia the first time around despite two of our key strengths showing up: 23 of 28 at the free throw line, and a 16-11 from Jarnell Stokes. However, we just saw a victory against Florida where Stokes was in foul trouble and the Vols betrayed themselves at the stripe. We are turning into a more complete basketball team, and have certainly become more than just Jarnell Stokes. With Golden on the floor this should be a much different ballgame, and check out Brad's feature this morning for more on what Jordan McRae has been doing.
Georgia followed up their win over us with another over Texas A&M, which made for six of seven at that point and had the Dawgs above .500 overall and 6-4 in league play. But since then Georgia has lost four of five, its only win in overtime in Athens against South Carolina. Particularly disappointing was their last performance, blowing a 17 point second half lead in Nashville and losing to Vanderbilt on a shot with less than a second left. That leaves them at 13-15, needing to win out against a really tough schedule (us, Kentucky, at Alabama) just to get back above .500 heading to the SEC Tournament. No team has ever made the NIT below .500, and after such a disappointing loss one might suspect to find them deflated with little to play for until the SEC Tournament.
KCP is still Georgia's only scorer north of 8 points per game. He goes for 17.7, but I'd be willing to bet their whole team isn't going to shoot 50% from the floor/55% from the arc this time. Between better defense, more Golden, and a sliding Georgia team with little to play for, I like our chances much better in this one. The Vols have to keep winning, plain and simple. The way we're playing I'd like our chances against anybody right now. That needs to include a mature performance on the road against a team that beat us earlier this season. It doesn't have the flash of Kentucky or Florida, but neither did LSU or Texas A&M, and we've kept playing well. Keep doing that, we keep winning. Keep winning, and we keep our date with the dance floor.
Saturday, 1:30 PM, SEC Network. Go Vols.