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SEC Tournament - Tennessee vs South Carolina Preview

The Vols take the floor in Atlanta with a surprise opponent on the other sideline.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We didn't expect the most important game of Cuonzo Martin's tenure to come against South Carolina, but here we are after Arkansas went ice cold from the arc and the Gamecocks won for the second day in a row 71-69. The loss probably sends Arkansas off the bubble with St. John's, Utah, and California. We're assuming Pittsburgh and Colorado are safe now after yesterday's wins. Several other bubble teams won on Thursday but now face make-or-break dates with top seeds on Friday; here's what to keep an eye on today:

  • Florida State vs Virginia - ACC Quarterfinals - 12:00 PM - ESPN2
  • Missouri vs Florida - SEC Quarterfinals - 1:00 PM - ESPNU
  • Nebraska vs Ohio State - Big Ten Quarterfinals - 2:00 PM - ESPN
  • Dayton vs St. Joseph's - Atlantic 10 Quarterfinals - 2:30 PM
  • Minnesota vs Wisconsin - Big Ten Quarterfinals - 6:00 PM - Big Ten Network
  • Providence vs Seton Hall - Big East Semifinals - 7:00 PM - Fox Sports 1
But absolutely none of that will matter if the Vols don't beat South Carolina. Tennessee can't afford to believe stuff like this right now:

Even if you want to believe it, what the Vols would really like to avoid is Dayton, and winning today is a great way to do that.

Our only meeting this year came on February 8, and it ended as soon as it began: Tennessee started the game on a 10-0 run and that was all she wrote in a 72-53 Vol victory. Jordan McRae was 6 of 8 from the arc and led the way with 24 points during Darius Thompson's run as starting point guard. The Gamecocks were 5-13 in league play but have now won three straight and four of five going back to their win over Kentucky. We thought Arkansas would be the hot team we'd have to cool off, but suddenly it's Carolina.

This will make three straight backcourt-dominant opponents the Vols have faced. After shutting down Auburn and Missouri, Tennessee's guards will go against Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams who combined for 27 today and are Carolina's top two scorers. This team shoots 38.1% from the arc, so when they're above their average they can play with anyone. Their biggest boost against the Razorbacks was 41 free throw attempts, so we'll see how it's officiated tomorrow.

I'll be interested to see what happens if the Vols don't run away with it in the first half as has been the case in the last three games and the first meeting with South Carolina, who hasn't beaten Tennessee since 2007. As you know, Tennessee hasn't won a close game all year and it would be interesting to see what happened down the stretch if we found ourselves in one. But I'd much rather find out tomorrow against Florida.

For Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee, everything is in their hands. The last two years Tennessee has played a Friday game in the SEC Tournament feeling like they needed a win to get in, and the last two years the Vols have come up empty. So after a tumultuous regular season, here's one more chance to do it yourself. Tennessee can right a lot of wrongs with a win today, and it's a win they absolutely should get.

Barring big surprise losses today from some of the nation's best teams or multiple cinderellas stealing bids this weekend, enough space has cleared on the cut line for the Vols to not only get in but move up. And a win would send the Vols through to Saturday in the SEC Tournament for only the fourth time in the last 23 years, the first time since going three straight from 2008-10. This hasn't been our tournament or our building, and at times it hasn't seemed like our year, but right now everything is breaking our way. And if our best basketball takes the floor again, we're dancing our way to the weekend and a chance for much more.

3:30(ish) PM, ESPNU. Let's get it.

Go Vols.