Wiedmer: Vols peaking impressively at best time

Wiedmer: Vols peaking impressively at best time

March 9th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Vols T logo

The Southeastern Conference men's basketball standings tell a big, fat lie this morning.

They officially show Kentucky as the league's second best team behind runaway regular-season champ Florida. And technically, that's not inaccurate. UK, the preseason national No. 1 in many polls, is 12-6 in conference play on the season, tied for the SEC's second best mark with Georgia, which the Wildcats waxed by 25 in their only meeting.

But anyone who's closely watched the conference the past three weeks knows the team most capable of shocking the No. 1 Gators in this week's SEC tournament inside the Georgia Dome is Tennessee, which won its third straight game by 27 or more points when it vaporized visiting Missouri 72-45 on Saturday.

"We're not scoring any better, but defensively we're just so much better [than the last time UT played Florida]," senior Jeronne Maymon said after scoring four points and grabbing 10 rebounds in what figures to be the final home game of his career.

"It's pretty impressive how far we've come defensively."

It's pretty impressive how far they've come ... period. Basically left for dead -- or the National Invitation Tournament, if you prefer -- following an overtime loss at Texas A&M on Feb. 22, the Volunteers have won four straight games and five out of six. The average margin of victory in those five wins is 23.9 points.

But the last three -- home wins over Vanderbilt and Mizzou sandwiched around a road rout of Auburn -- have come by a stunning 30.3 average for a team that will enter the SEC tournament as the No. 4 seed and play Friday afternoon against a team yet to be determined.

"The difference is Antonio Barton," losing coach Frank Haith offered after watching the senior transfer from Memphis score a team-high 16 points, including an early 3-pointer that gave the Vols a 3-0 lead in a game they led wire to wire.

"Barton was the one guy we were trying to help off of -- it's tough to guard Jarnell Stokes one on one -- and he made us pay. It was totally different than the first time we played them."

Just how different? Barton scored two points in 22 minutes of action in Columbia, Mo., going 0-7 from the floor and committing two turnovers. Inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday, with 18,519 Volniacs cheering his every move, Barton hit half of his 12 field-goal attempts and four of his seven 3-pointers while turning the ball over only once.

Apparently all those 200 to 300 extra jump shots he's been hoisting up for a couple of hours each morning with assistant coach Tracy Webster are starting to pay off.

But if any single player is unexpectedly turning Tennessee from pretender to contender, it's junior Josh Richardson. The Oklahoma native hit his average on offense against the Tigers, scoring nine points. More impressively, he held Mizzou's Jabari Brown to eight points, the first time he'd failed to reach double figures all season.

In fact, two of Brown's points came with Richardson on the bench late, and his 1-for-10 showing from the field after totaling 24 points on the Vols in the first meeting may be the best indicator of all regarding UT's improvement.

No wonder Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said after watching Tennessee double the score on his Commodores last week, "I've thought for some time that Josh Richardson was one of the more underrated players in our league."

And if it seems this sea change has taken place overnight, that happens in basketball. Both good and bad. Or would you rather be Kentucky -- having lost three of its last four games -- or the Vols this morning?

"Our chemistry is better, particularly on the defensive side of the ball," said senior Jordan McRae, who had 11 points and three blocks. "We're playing our best basketball of the year, but it's really the same blueprint Coach [Cuonzo] Martin's been giving us all year."

Now 20-11 for the season and 11-7 in the league, the Vols would appear to have their first NCAA bid since 2011 all but locked up following this victory. Yet conference tournament week also produces odd results, and to win the SEC tourney inside the Georgia Dome, should the seeds hold, the Vols would have to knock off Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky in succession. When you haven't won the league tourney since 1979, that's a formidable obstacle.

Mizzou's Haith doesn't think the Vols have anything to worry about.

"I've always thought that [Tennessee] is an NCAA team," he said. "They beat the best team in the ACC (Virginia) by 35 points. That's what I see."

With three straight wins by 27 or more points, it's suddenly hard to see the NCAA Selection Committee seeing anything different.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com