KNOXVILLE -- The Tennessee men's basketball team wants a high NCAA tournament seed. Mississippi State would settle for any seed.
The Volunteers have ensured their tournament selection. MSU's Bulldogs have not.
Mississippi State hosts 16th-ranked UT in a Southeastern Conference game tonight, and the Bulldogs (21-9, 9-6) will be a desperate bunch for their senior night.
Humphrey Coliseum won't be the most hospitable setting for the Vols (22-7, 10-5).
"They're going to be fighting for their tournament lives," UT senior wing J.P. Prince said. "It's going to be a battle. They need this one more than we do."
But that doesn't mean the Vols want it any less, Prince insisted.
"We owe them one," Prince said, referring to the Bulldogs' 64-61 win in the 2009 SEC tournament championship game.
MSU denied UT its first league tourney title in 30 years, and the Vols haven't forgotten a turnover-filled final minute in which they squandered several chances to hoist the SEC banner.
"We gave them that championship," Prince said. "I've been waiting for this game for a while."
Emotions should swing wildly today for other reasons, too. UT sophomore guard Scotty Hopson hasn't returned to Starkville since spurning a yearlong commitment to MSU and signing with the Vols.
Still, UT senior point guard Bobby Maze said, today "won't be anything we haven't seen before. We've played at Kentucky. We've played at Florida. This is time to man up, to prove our identity, to show how tough of a team we are. It doesn't matter that it's their senior night. It doesn't matter what kind of environment we're facing. It doesn't matter. None of it matters.
"All I know is that we've got to be ready to play basketball, and I know we will be ready to do that."
MSU coach Rick Stansbury tried minimizing the impact of his team's 89-80 loss at lowly Auburn on Wednesday night, saying it had "nothing to do with" the Bulldogs' NCAA tournament chances.
"We've got to go home and beat Tennessee," Stansbury said moments after the loss. "That's the only thing that matters right now, is Tennessee."
Point guard Dee Bost had a different take.
The Bulldogs haven't won a game this season against a team locked into the NCAA tournament, and teams they've lost to include Rider, Richmond, Western Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and now Auburn.
"We knew we couldn't lose this game to get into the tournament, so this is a big loss on the resume," Bost told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.
And that's why UT junior point guard Melvin Goins said he expected a "dogfight" from the Bulldogs.
"They seem very hungry, and we're going into their house," he said. "It's their last home game, and it's their senior night, and they're right there on the bubble, so I'm expecting a real, real dogfight from those guys."
Don't expect a listless effort from UT, though, Prince maintained.
"We've got plenty of motivation, too -- a lot of motivation," Prince said. "We know how important it is to enter the SEC and NCAA tournaments on a roll. And like I said, we owe them one."
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