With a nine point win in Columbia tonight, Cuonzo Martin's Year One Vols reached a number of important landmarks. Tennessee goes to 16-13 overall, guaranteeing them a .500-or-better finish this year. The Vols got their eighth SEC win, ensuring the same finish in the league. And perhaps more importantly, I think now Cuonzo's first year has reached the point where even if the Vols don't win another game and get left out to dry by the NIT, you can still call it a success.
You saw more of the process tonight: the part that's very much in place (South Carolina shoots 32.4%, the latest in a long line of teams to be smothered by the Vol defense) and the part that still needs growth (21 turnovers, a season high that kept the game closer than it should've been at all times). But the part that's already grown allowed Tennessee to overcome those turnovers the way they couldn't in a similar situation in Athens, where they turned the ball over 20 times and it cost them the game. Tonight, it just got in the way of a 52.2% shooting night that included 7 of 14 from the arc.
Jeronne Maymon had 14 points and 8 rebounds, but in just 27 minutes thanks to three fouls in three minutes at the open of the second half. But the Vols went small with four guards, and Trae Golden took control with 21 points, and left the facilitating to Cameron Tatum: 5 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals. And once again, Jordan McRae was sensational off the bench with 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists. Throw in Jarnell Stokes with 7 points 7 rebounds a pair of blocks, and such balance allowed the Vols to take all the punches South Carolina threw at them, survive the ones they inflicted on themselves with turnovers, and still stay out in front. The Vols led 27-16 in the first half but just 34-32 at halftime. But it only took the Vols five minutes to build it back to ten in the second half, and once there the Vols never allowed Carolina to seriously threaten again.
The fact that we can pick apart this team's second road victory of the year and/or play sloppy and still win by nine is a very good sign. This was a nice win for a team that didn't play its best and still won comfortably on the road.
But what's coming next now becomes much more important.
At 8-6, the Vols stay tied with Alabama for fourth place in the SEC. Right behind them at 7-7 is LSU, and the Vols will be in Baton Rouge on Wednesday night. We're still not entertaining any NCAA Tournament talk by any other means than New Orleans - the Vols' RPI went up to 89 as of late Saturday night and could certainly climb more next week, but the sure and clear path to the big dance is the SEC Tournament. And Tennessee still has an excellent chance to earn a first round bye in New Orleans.
Kentucky is locked into the top seed, but everything else is still open. Florida's loss at Georgia and their remaining schedule - at Vandy, vs Kentucky - means the Gators could slide back to 10-6. And if the Vols beat Vanderbilt - and we'll get to them later in the week - Tennessee could finish as high as second in the league. And that's the whole scenario: Gators lose at Vandy and against Kentucky, Tennessee wins out, Vols are second in the league (Alabama beat Tennessee head-to-head, but would lose any multi-team tiebreaker to the Vols in that scenario because they already lost to Florida and Vanderbilt).
You might think, "Man, if we finish second in the SEC, there's no way the NCAA could leave us out!" But you'd be wrong, because they did exactly that to a 12-4 Alabama team last year. We'll explore that comparison more if Tennessee wins enough to merit it, but again: winning next week isn't about our at-large resume as much as it's about positioning ourselves for a run in New Orleans. And yeah, finishing second in the SEC would be one more reason to call this year a rousing success.
The primary focus is always the NCAA Tournament, and at this point that means the primary focus is the SEC Tournament. But the NIT would still be an excellent consolation prize, and wins next week can make the difference between in and out. Remember, the NIT gives automatic bids to low/mid-major regular season conference champions who fail to win their conference tournament and miss the big dance. So as low/mid-major conference tournaments begin this week, remember: you want all the favorites to win.
We could stop now, bow out, and still call what we've seen a success from Cuonzo Martin. But next week, the Vols have a chance to move this thing from a good feeling to a good result. NIT, NCAA, SEC...all roads go through Baton Rouge.