With football in the rear view, we turn our full attention to SEC Basketball - the Vols will determine their postseason fate twice a week for the next eight weeks, and with a smattering of non-conference losses and the dark cloud of an NCAA investigation surrounding the program, it's never been more true that every single one of these will count, and every win will be precious.
The journey starts in Fayetteville, where the Vols and Hogs will open SEC play on a full Saturday of action:
- Tennessee at Arkansas - 1:30 PM - SEC Network
- Alabama at Mississippi State - 4:00 PM - SEC Network
- Kentucky at Georgia - 4:00 PM - SEC Network
- Vanderbilt at South Carolina - 5:00 PM - SEC Network
- LSU at Auburn - 6:00 PM - Fox Sports Net
- Ole Miss at Florida - 8:00 PM - CSS
It's also the opener for Tony Jones as interim head coach. If you're not familiar with the Vols' associate head coach, his twitter account is a good place to start (this from July 6 might be my favorite tweet ever). He keeps it real...and is always live.
Both Jones and the Vols need to get off to a good start, and keep building momentum off the Memphis win. The only way to shed the inconsistent label this team carries is to put together consecutive wins. With Florida and Vanderbilt coming into Knoxville next week for two of the season's most important games, Tennessee needs to be at their best right away under Jones...and that'll have to start at Arkansas.
The Pigs are 10-3, and have a pair of neutral site overtime losses to UAB and Texas A&M. But in their biggest test of the season, they failed in spectacular fashion: Texas rocked Arkansas 79-46 on Tuesday night (a game no one saw because it was played during the Sugar Bowl).
Arkansas hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2008, and John Pelphrey's seat has to be warm after going 9-23 in SEC play the last two years. SEC West teams have to know that their only chance to get in the NCAA Tournament is to win games against the more prestigious teams from the East, and Arkansas will certainly look to rebound from their worst performance of the season last time out.
With Courtney Fortson gone, Arkansas leans on Rotnei Clarke. The junior guard leads the Hogs with 14.1 points per game, shooting 40.8% from the arc. No other player averages double figures, though senior forward Delvon Johnson has been strong inside, averaging 9.6 points and 8.8 rebounds. Arkansas does have some fairly decent shooters in guards Jeff Peterson and Julysses Nobles, a unanimous All-Name Team selection. But it's a very small backcourt (Clarke, Peterson, and Nobles go 6'0", 6'0", 6'1"), and Johnson is the tallest player on the team at 6'9". So there's plenty of opportunity for the Vols to get physical with this bunch.
Against good teams Arkansas has been completely shut down: in their three losses, they averaged just 54.3 points per game (in regulation). This is a team Tennessee should be able to beat at both a fast or slow tempo - we just proved we can outrun a team against Memphis, and I for one would love to see us slow things down and prove we can win a game going inside repeatedly. Either way, this is a game the Vols should win - it's important for Tony Jones and for the program to keep building momentum, putting December behind us and taking the first step in the race for the SEC Championship.