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Five reasons Tennessee Basketball could make their first NCAA tournament semifinals

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The more I watch the Tennessee men’s basketball team, the higher I see the ceiling.

The 91-71 dismantling of Alabama (which was 4-0 in SEC play) underscores the Vols’ potential.

So does a 90-64 rout of then-undefeated Ole Miss.

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Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Ole Miss’ Chris Beard each said UT has a Final Four caliber team.

I’ve heard that narrative from different coaches in different seasons. And yet, the Vols still have just one Elite Eight appearance in program history and no – I repeat, NO – Final Fours.

Auburn has been to a Final Four. So has Georgia and South Carolina and Arkansas and LSU and Florida and Mississippi State, and, of course, Kentucky.

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But not Tennessee.

The Alabama game, however, displayed the versatility and depth of Rick Barnes’ team.

Here are five reasons Tennessee could make the NCAA Tournament semifinals for the first time ever.

Dalton Knecht

Hard to believe this guy was 6-foot-1 coming out of high school, went to a junior college then a small school (Northern Colorado) before the Vols landed him from the transfer portal.

Knecht has been on a tear. He scored 25 points against Bama and that was his worst outing in a four-game stretch that has seen him ring up 28, 36 and 39 points. He is a three-level scorer – hitting 3s, mid-range jumpers and drives to the hoop.

Barnes has wisely restructured his offense to take advantage of Knecht’s offensive prowess.

Knecht’s scoring ability could/should help UT avoid long scoring droughts in postseason play.

ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes thinks Knecht is the best NBA prospect in the SEC.

Moreover, UT has scored at least 85 points in three consecutive SEC games for the first time in 46 years – thanks in large part to Knecht.

Zakai Ziegler

Is there a better point guard in the SEC? Ziegler has become a solid 3-point shooter, hitting over 42% (20 of 47) in a six-game span. He leads the SEC in assists and he’s Dennis the Menace on defense, harassing opposing point guards. He had four steals against Alabama.

He’s had a season-high 23 points and he’s a capable free throw shooter in tight games.

Depth

During a recent five-game stretch, senior guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James were basically none contributors.

Against Mississippi State, Florida and Georgia, that duo was 7-of-34 from the field, 3-of-18 on 3s, and combined for 14 assists and 25 rebounds while averaging 52 minutes. They combined for five points in 55 minutes against Mississippi State. And they didn’t impact games in other ways, such as rebounds, assists and defense.

Yet, the Vols kept winning. In fact, UT has won 10 of 11 games and, with rare exception, didn’t get much from Vescovi or James.

Also, Jordan Gainey has been in almost a season-long slump, making just 27.6% of his 3s until hitting 3-of-5 from beyond the arc against Bama. If Gainey, who made 49% of his 3s as a freshman at USC Upstate, can get on track with his shooting, he’s another scoring threat.

And Jahmai Mashack, perhaps the SEC’s best perimeter defender, has improved his shooting.

Bottom line: UT can win without much production from James and Vescovi due to its depth, but history suggests both will play much better in the coming weeks.

Jonas Aidoo  

Aidoo is one of the SEC’s most improved players. He’s had back-to-back 19 point games. He had 10 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks against Georgia. He’s averaging 12.1 points per game (he averaged 5.1 last year), and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds (he averaged 4.9 last year). He can hit mid-range jumpers and he has an uncanny touch with his left hand.

Aidoo struggles to guard big, strong post players like Zach Edey, Andrew Bacot and Tolu Smith, but he has given UT an inside scoring presence that is necessary in postseason play.

Defense

Alabama entered the UT game shooting 39.7% from 3-point range, one of the best figures in the SEC. The Tide had four games in which it shot at least 50% from beyond the arc.

But against the Vols, Bama tied its season-low for made 3s (four) and had its second-worst accuracy from long range (19%).

Tennessee suffocated Bama’s guards on the perimeter and recorded a mind-boggling 15 steals, all but one by the guards.

UT’s defensive efficiency has ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation by KenPom stats. Opponents are shooting 38% from the field and less than 30% on 3s.

So UT has an elite all-around scorer, an inside scorer, a top-notch point guard, really good depth and plays exceptional defense.

That’s a formula for a high ceiling – and perhaps that elusive Final Four.

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