The Vols were a little rusty on the offensive end after five days off, but their defense didn't take a vacation. Tennessee held South Carolina to 27.1% from the floor, knocking off the Gamecocks 59-44 and moving on to face #1 Florida tomorrow.
This win should lock up Tennessee's bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Vols moved a couple notches up to 42 in RPI, and other bubbles burst for Florida State, Missouri, and possibly Nebraska. The hope here is the Vols have also played their way out of the First Four in Dayton, though we'll have to wait for Sunday on that one.
The Vols go to Saturday in the SEC Tournament for just the fourth time since 1991 and the first time since three straight from 2008-2010. To get to Sunday for only the second time since '91 and try to win the tournament for the first time since '79 we'll have to take down the Gators in our third try this season.
Tennessee's offensive x-factors weren't exactly on display today - Antonio Barton didn't hit a shot and the Vols had just 10 assists and 12 turnovers - but Jarnell Stokes made sure this thing was never in doubt. He was option one for Tennessee today, finishing with 22 points (two shy of a career high) and 15 rebounds. An undersized South Carolina team threw double and triple teams at him frequently, but Stokes went 9 of 14 from the floor and had zero turnovers. With Jordan McRae adding 14 and Armani Moore putting in six off the bench, the Vols actually shot 48.8% from the floor but didn't win by more thanks to a 15 of 25 performance from the free throw line.
Still, you know you're back to playing well when you can criticize a 15 point win. And it was a monumental win for Cuonzo Martin. It may take more wins for all of the fanbase to get back on board, but if this team continues to play the basketball we've seen in the last five games more wins are out there. And as we said after the Missouri win, the conversation is now changing from survive to advance. Not only should Martin's job no longer be in jeopardy, but he's got this team playing at the level everyone expected from them at the season's most important time.
There will be more words on Cuonzo when the season ends and more words on Florida tomorrow. For now, Tennessee should have a sense of security it hasn't enjoyed in the last two years on Selection Sunday. But before then, the conversation remains Tennessee's best basketball and exactly how good it can be. We'll get no better test than the next one.