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Rick Barnes previews tournament season for Tennessee

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tournament time has arrived — for real this year. Tennessee enters the SEC Tournament as the No. 4 seed, earning the double-bye and a ticket to Friday afternoon. They’ll away the winner of Florida-Vanderbilt, which will be played on Thursday.

It was an up and down season for the Volunteers, who didn’t live up to expectations in conference play. Tennessee’s veteran core and top five ranked recruiting class just never quite got totally rolling offensively, and were plagued with inconsistency throughout the year.

But a new season begins this week — one that doesn’t exactly care what you did over the last two months. Tournament time is a different ballgame, offering everyone a final shot to make something out of their season.

“Players know that it’s time to buckle down,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said ahead of the SEC Tournament. “They’re excited and with the weather being nice, it allows them to get out more but they know it’s tournament time. In some ways, everyone has to hit the reset button. Look at Appalachian State who lost six out of seven games before the conference tournament started, then got an automatic bid. That’s what makes tournament time special, we’ve lived it and seen those types of things happen and those things can happen anywhere at any time.”

Tennessee finished the regular season with a 17-7 mark overall. It wasn’t quite what we all had in mind with Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer entering the picture, but there’s still time to make some noise.

The Volunteers came up with a come from behind win over Florida on Sunday, something that could perhaps get the momentum moving in the right direction at the most crucial of times. Ahead of that game, Tennessee had a full seven days off. It allowed the team to reset and heal, and you saw that pay off with the performance of John Fulkerson against the Gators.

“I do think the week off helped us,” Barnes said. “We played hard Sunday. We were emotional. Once we settled in, we played 25 good minutes. I’m not saying we didn’t play well to start with, but we had the tempo going, we had shots that we didn’t knock down. I do like the fact that it’s allowed us to get healthy. It’s allowed John Fulkerson to get a little more rest. It’s allowed him to get his hand right—his shoulder right. Maybe for younger guys it’s probably been good mentally. This time of year, young guys have played more and done more than they’ve ever done. I’d like to think we could go to Nashville and play for a championship and get back into that rhythm. Overall, I do think this time has helped us.”

Can Tennessee put a run together? It’s possible, though we haven’t seen them string good performances together at all over the last two months. One thing is clear — this team needs John Fulkerson operating at a high level. They looked like a different group with Fulky engaged on Sunday against Florida, which hopefully is a sign of things to come over the next couple of weeks.

“I feel like there were times this year where John had done some things in a game and it would get him going, but he still struggled at times with it,” Barnes said. “I thought most of the time when he struggled it was due to stamina. Being optimistic and positive, I hope it does. Nobody is pulling for him harder to carry over what he did Sunday than all of us who are involved with him. We want to see him do that, because we think he deserves it, but he’s going to have to do it.”

Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer can take over a game. Victor Bailey and Santiago Vescovi can get hot and keep Tennessee alive or even put them over the top with hot shooting. Yves Pons can be a total eraser on the defensive end, while Josiah-Jordan James can help out with a little bit of everything. We just haven’t seen all of those things happening at once.

It’s sort of an odd feeling this late in the season, but it’s absolutely true — there’s a whole new level left to find for this team, but they’re running out of time to find it. Now it’s do or die, and it all kicks off on Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. ET.