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Tennessee vs Ole Miss Preview: Vol Seniors Look To Play Their Way To Thursday in the SEC Tournament

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Kevin Punter may or may not play but will be celebrated alongside Devon Baulkman, Derek Reese, and Armani Moore, who was a key part of Tennessee's last NCAA Tournament run.

Armani Moore was a bigger part of Tennessee's 2014 Sweet 16 run than many remember.
Armani Moore was a bigger part of Tennessee's 2014 Sweet 16 run than many remember.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee's senior day should have been highlighted by Kevin Punter.  But a stress fracture has kept him out of Tennessee's last four games, and the Vols have lost three in a row.  Punter has not yet elected to have surgery and is out of his walking boot, but there's no outright optimism on his return for tomorrow's game with Ole Miss or next week's SEC Tournament.

Punter will still be celebrated, and deservedly so; we wrote about his having the best scoring season since Allan Houston just before his injury.  Tennessee's other three seniors will also hear their names called in Thompson-Boling Arena for the final time.  It's the end of a two-year career for Devon Baulkman, while Derek Reese and Armani Moore will play their final game in Knoxville at the end of four seasons with the Vols.

Reese played 38 minutes in Tennessee's four NCAA Tournament games in 2014, his production increasing in the latter half of Cuonzo Martin's final season as the Vols pushed their way to the Sweet 16.  He had more opportunities with Donnie Tyndall's squad last season, averaging 6.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 25.3 minutes.  Though his minutes and his scoring have dropped this year, his rebounding productivity has really increased, getting 5.1 boards in just 18.2 minutes.

Even more than Reese, Armani Moore's increased role was a huge part of Tennessee's late season run in 2014.  Those Vols featured three NBA players in the starting lineup and often saw Antonio Barton's shooting as an x-factor.  But don't discount what Moore did as a sophomore in the most meaningful games of his career:  after averaging just 10.1 minutes per game through the first 25 games of the season, Moore got 17.8 minutes in Tennessee's final 12 games in 2014.  The Vols went 9-3 in that stretch, winning their way to the dance floor while losing only at Texas A&M in overtime, to #1 Florida in the SEC Tournament, and to two-seed Michigan in the Sweet 16 by two points.  Moore had six points and six rebounds against the Wolverines in 20 minutes.

As a starter for both Donnie Tyndall and Rick Barnes Moore has become the spiritual successor of J.P. Prince, filling the start sheet every night.  Last year he averaged 10.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists, at his best in the Vols' early three game SEC winning streak which included 14 points and 8 rebounds in a win over #19 Arkansas and a 15-11 double-double at Missouri.  He also had a 19-13 in the home win over Auburn.

This year at a faster tempo, Moore has averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists while becoming the best under-6'5" shot blocker I've ever seen in an orange uniform.  He has been at his best against Tennessee's most talented opponents:

  • vs Kentucky (W 84-77):  18 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals
  • at Kentucky (L 80-70):  21 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks
  • vs LSU (W 81-65):  17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks, 4 steals
They will come to Saturday with something on the line:  beat Ole Miss and Tennessee will avoid Wednesday in the SEC Tournament, getting to the same 7-11 conference mark they had last year.  There does appear to be a scenario where the Vols can still avoid Wednesday if they lose, but it includes LSU winning at Kentucky so I'd just rather go ahead and beat the Rebels.

A scheduling quirk has given Ole Miss games against the four worst teams in the league in their last five games; so far the Rebels are 3-0 against Auburn, Missouri, and Mississippi State around a loss at Georgia.  Their 19-11 record comes by way of a non-conference schedule ranking 282, so with an RPI of 89 coming to Knoxville I wouldn't expect 20 wins to suddenly put them on the bubble.  They do have SEC scoring leader Stefan Moody, who just dropped 43 on MSU Wednesday night.  It will be a shame if Punter can't go, as Ole Miss launches 24 threes per game in league play and a Moody/Punter showdown would be all kinds of fun.

If Tennessee can recover some of its home magic with or without KP and get the win, they'll face the six seed in the last game on Thursday night.  That would be one of a crowded group of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, or Georgia.  If the Vols end up in the play-in they would go at 7:00 PM Wednesday night against either Auburn or Mississippi State, then turn around and face the five seed if they won at 7:00 PM Thursday, which would be whoever comes out of that top group of Texas A&M, Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, and Vanderbilt without a bye.  It's a worse deal all around.

Here's hoping the Vol seniors, with or without Punter, can find one more meaningful win in their careers in Knoxville.  The Vols and Rebels tip at noon Saturday.  Go Vols.