KNOXVILLE—The expected sense of disappointment wasn’t hidden in Tennessee’s locker room moments after Friday night’s loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals.
But as guard Josh Bone put it, the Volunteers can’t sulk for too long.
“Obviously we’re hurt and we’re down about it and feel like we could have done a lot of things,” he said. “But we still have games to play, and we’re going to look to get better during that time.”
UT (19-14) will learn its NCAA tournament fate when the field is announced this evening. The Vols should receive an at-large bid, and most projections have UT slotted anywhere from a No. 9 to a No. 12 seed.
“I think obviously we could have improved our seeding tremendously by beating Florida,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “I still feel like we are a team that’s worthy of the tournament, based on our strength of schedule and RPI and the number of wins over the top 50 and the top 100 (in the RPI).”
Despite a season filled with frustration due to inconsistent play and close losses, UT entered the SEC tournament expecting to make a run, and the Vols likewise hope to make a push to the second weekend in the NCAA tournament. And though their chances of advancing depend on the draw and their matchups, they have some focusing on their own play to do.
“[We’ll] just wait it out and see where we go and who we play and focus on us a little bit,” point guard Melvin Goins said. “I think overall we need to improve everything, playing together as a unit. Individually, I need to work on some things in my whole game.”
Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris have carried the Vols offensively all season, and Harris has been most effective lately. The freshman forward averaged 20.8 points in his last five games, including two 25-point performances. He scored 34 combined first-half points in UT’s two SEC tournament games but took just 11 shots in the second halves.
“We’ve got to try to get him the ball more and more,” Goins said. “He’s a great player and he’s stepped up big for us this year every game.”
Hopson averaged nearly 24 points per game in a six-game February run, but he made just 12 of his 33 shots in the last three games and turned the ball over seven times in Friday’s loss.
The Vols also must shore up their second-half defense, which has plagued them recently. UT’s last four opponents made 57 percent of their field-goal attempts in the second halves. That might be the toughest problem to understand for the Vols, who repeatedly have reiterated an emphasis on defense and rebounding.
“We’re going to have to if we expect to do anything,” center Brian Williams said. “If we make [the NCAA tournament], whoever they put against us, we’re going to have come together as one unit. There’s no home court — we’re just on a neutral court and us against the world.”
Even this far into the season, the Vols still are tinkering with their rotations in search of the most effective lineup. Bone replaced the slumping Cameron Tatum in the starting five against the Gators. Kenny Hall at center, Trae Golden as Goins’ backup at point guard and Skylar McBee on the wing have all bounced in and out of the rotation in the last month.
“[We need to] continue to stay together and just get better, and hopefully we can get in there and make a run,” Bone said. “We just have to stay together.”
Said Pearl: “I think that our basketball team can be a dangerous team in the tournament. We demonstrated that we’re good enough to beat anybody on our schedule.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...