By Josh Ward
Let’s get right to it with Tennessee’s current situation entering the SEC Tournament.
The confidence level of Big Orange Nation could be higher.
Several reasons explain why the collective mood has dropped:
- The Vols earned a No. 5 seed in this week’s conference tournament, which means they will have to play on Thursday.
- Tennessee lost point guard Zakai Zeigler for the season last week when he tore his ACL.
- Tennessee lost six of its final 10 games.
- The Vols picked up one quality win away from home in SEC play: at Mississippi State way back on Jan. 17.
So now that I have you fired up to begin postseason play… how about the bright side?
In Tennessee’s first full game without Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi scored 21 points on the road at Auburn.
While Vescovi isn’t a natural fit at point guard, he has experience at the position. He’s also a natural scorer with playmaking ability.
The Vols lost Zeigler but have Josiah Jordan-James and Julian Phillips back.
They can both handle the basketball and attack the rim in half-court situations.
Young players like Tobe Awaka and Jahmai Mashack are ready to work. (Look at Awaka’s 10 rebounds at Auburn.)
If you’re worried about focus in March, Tennessee should have it. The Vols have vowed to play for Zeigler the rest of the way.
Tennessee might also have landed the more manageable side of the SEC bracket.
The Vols avoided the side featuring Kentucky and Texas A&M, two hot teams that went 3-0 against Tennessee.
Thursday’s opponent (the winner of Ole Miss-South Carolina) should be an easy win for Tennessee. Nothing is guaranteed, but let’s assume the Vols win.
Tennessee will then play Missouri on Friday.
The Tigers are tough but they only have one quality road win in SEC play.
Yes… it was in Knoxville against Tennessee. But remember – it was on a buzzer-beater in a game Missouri shot 14-of-26 from three.
Tennessee knows it can beat Missouri.
Again using the Assumption Simulator, Saturday’s opponent would be Alabama. We’ve already seen Tennessee beat the Crimson Tide.
This time would be tougher without Zeigler and away from Knoxville. But Alabama is working through some of its own stuff.
If Tennessee gets by Missouri, the Vols will take their chances against anyone.
Here’s something else to boost your confidence in Tennessee if you’re still not feeling it.
Tennessee has a top-5 ranking at KenPom.com. The NCAA NET ranking has the Vols third in the country.
And oddsmakers give Tennessee the second-best odds to win the SEC Tournament (Alabama is No. 1).
Tennessee has plenty of questions entering the postseason.
But guess what? So does every other team.
The same keys to victory for Tennessee that we’ve discussed all season will apply this week.
They’re the keys the Vols used to beat Alabama, Kansas and Texas.
Defend well for 40 minutes. Rebound. Take care of the basketball and avoid late-game mistakes. Hit open shots and free throws.
Should be easy. Right?