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Tennessee can advance to Elite Eight if the Vols can score off the bench

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Don’t let Tennessee’s one-sided victory of Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament sway your opinion on whether the Vols can make the Final Four.

But don’t dismiss the outcome, either.

Tennessee took care of business with excellent first-half shooting, relentless defense and big-time contributions from its big men in establishing a 46-20 halftime lead over the Peacocks.

Granted, Saint Peter’s probably wouldn’t have finished in the top 10 of the SEC. The Peacocks were one of the worst teams in the 68-team field.

Still, Tennessee did its job, unlike Kentucky, Auburn, Florida and South Carolina – each of whom lost to a double-digit seed.

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The key is, when you’re the heavy favorite – the Vols were a 21-point pick – start fast and don’t let the underdog gain confidence – or have a player hit 10 3s.

Tennessee led 27-7 just 11 minutes into the game behind terrific inside play of Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka. When the Vols assumed 26-point halftime lead – the program’s biggest in an NCAA tourney — Aidoo and Awka were the main culprits, combining for 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field as the team hit 64% overall. Aidoo added three blocks.

Tennessee (25-8) finished with balanced scoring. Dalton Knecht had 23 points, Aidoo 15, Zakai Ziegler, playing against his younger brother, added 11 points and 10 assists. Santiago Vescovi, after an awful start, made 2-of-4 3s. Awaka finished with eight points.

The taller Vols also dominated the boards 47-21 and had 28 points in the paint – most in the first half. While UT was accumulating 19 assists against 15 turnovers, Saint Peter’s had just three assists and six turnovers and shot only 29% from the field – 23.3% in the first half.

An easy win over a weak opponent was expected.

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Now, the Vols face Texas, an easy winner over Colorado State, 56-44. The Rams trailed 27-11 in the first half and shot just 29.3% for the game.

Vols coach Rick Barnes, who coached for 17 years at Texas before being fired April 2015, faces his former team for the third time in three seasons as UT’s coach. They split two matchups in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

But this time, the stakes are higher than ever at the 8pm tip-off today.

A win puts UT in the Sweet 16 for the third time under Barnes and the ninth time in his 38-year coaching career.

Barnes is a pedestrian 28-27 in NCAA tourney games, which belies his incredible regular-season record. UT is 26-26 all-time in NCAA tourney games.

For Barnes to get the post-season monkey off his back, he needs to beat Texas (21-12) .

The Longhorns are led by guard Max Abmas, who starred at Oral Roberts for four years and is the leading active NCAA scorer with 3,122 points. He has scored double figures in 142 of 156 career games. He is averaging 17.0 points and 4.2 assists for Texas.

Dylan Disu, a Vanderbilt transfer, is Texas’ second-best player. The 6-foot-9 forward had 12 points and five rebounds against Colorado State. He is averaging 15.7 points and 5.0 rebounds.

Guard Tyrese Hunter averages 11.0 points and 4.2 assists. Guard Chendall Weaver came off the bench to score 11 against the Rams.

Both are veteran teams. Tennessee starts three fifth-year seniors and two juniors. Texas starts three fifth-year seniors, a junior and a sophomore.

The Vols also need balanced scoring and support for Knecht, the SEC Player of the Year who averaged over 25 points in SEC games.

You can trust Knecht to score, Ziegler to play well and Aidoo to provide scoring, rebounding and perhaps a few blocked shots.

Was hasn’t been so trustworthy is the play of Vescovi and Josiah Jordan James. Statistically, they rank among the worst players in the NCAA tourney in terms of offensive efficiency.

James delivered another scoring goose egg against Saint Peter’s.

Vescovi has been shooting miserably from outside the past 10 or so games.

If James and Vescovi combine for a dozen points, UT should be golden.

If not, the Vols might need bench help from Awaka or Jordan Gainey or Jahmai Mashack.

UT also must contain the scoring of Abmas and keep Disu off the boards.

If so, a trip to Los Angeles is in the offing.

And a chance to make a second-ever Elite Eight appearance is within sight.

Prediction: Tennessee 75-70

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