KNOXVILLE — When Tennessee men's basketball players returning for this season talked after last season about the toughest opponent they had faced, they were unanimous: South Carolina.
The Gamecocks reached the Final Four for the first time, and as the Volunteers began to formulate a vision for 2017-18, they talked openly about their respect for the fellow Southeastern Conference program and their desire to emulate its hard-nosed playing style.
"They're tough on defense, and that's how we wanted to play," sophomore guard Jordan Bowden said Tuesday night after Tennessee completed a season sweep of the Gamecocks with a 70-67 win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin said No. 18 Tennessee (19-6, 9-4) has accomplished that goal in its third season under coach Rick Barnes.
"His team reminds me a lot of my team last year," Martin said Tuesday. "Just a team that is tied at the hip, and they are relentless on both ends of the floor."
Martin said Barnes told him at the league's preseason media day he wanted Tennessee to play like South Carolina. The Vols were picked by media that day to finish 13th in the SEC, but entering Wednesday night, they held sole possession of second place in the standings.
When his team went more than three minutes without making a shot late in Tuesday's game, Barnes said it was the Vols' adoption of the South Carolina way that allowed them to hang on for the win.
"Because I'm telling you, our offense wasn't good," Barnes said. "Even though they shot 48 percent, when we needed to get some stops, we did."
Barnes and Martin coached against each other in the Big 12 from 2007 to 2012, when Barnes was at Texas and Martin was at Kansas State. Martin said it was as big of a compliment as anyone has ever paid him in coaching when Barnes informed him of Tennessee's intention to play like the 2016-17 Gamecocks.
"We're very similar in the way we want to play basketball, and we're going to be in ugly games," Barnes said. "We know that. You know, you look at his team a year ago, they played arguably harder than any team in college basketball, and I think that's why the country fell in love with them. At times they struggled to score, but their defense and their grit kept them in games."
One thing Tennessee — which next plays Saturday at Georgia — may want to avoid emulating is the way South Carolina closed last season. The Gamecocks lost six of nine games entering the NCAA tournament before rediscovering their mojo.
The Vols earned the comparison to last year's South Carolina team from Martin, but they still have work to do if they want the same end result or better.
"We can't let that get on our heads," Bowden said. "We have to take it game by game and get better every day."
This story was updated Feb. 14, 2018, at 10:28 p.m. with more information.