Wiedmer: Version of the Vols who beat Kansas can reach Final Four

Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Caitie McMekin via AP / Tennessee guard Keon Johnson, left, tries to steal the ball from Kansas counterpart Dajuan Harris Jr. during their team's Big 12/SEC Challenge game Saturday night in Knoxville. Johnson helped the Vols cruise to a 19-point win.

There are lots of ways to look at the Southeastern Conference's 5-4 win in the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge series of men's basketball games this past Saturday.

From the SEC's perspective, it looked pretty dang competitive in all nine games, even Auburn's 84-72 loss at undefeated and second-ranked Baylor. And almost no team in the event looked better than No. 18 Tennessee in its 80-61 dismantling of the No. 15 Kansas Jayhawks, unless it was possibly Mississippi State in an absolute crushing of shorthanded Iowa State, 95-56.

Then again, Iowa State wasn't supposed to be any good. The Jayhawks, though not a typical Kansas bunch, are ranked.

Of course, if you're the Big 12, you could also quite fairly point out that your second-highest ranked team - No. 5 Texas - was denied a chance to add to Kentucky's misery when the Wildcats had to opt out of their scheduled game against the Longhorns inside Rupp Arena because of at least one positive COVID-19 test within the program.

But assuming that one Challenge game might have been a close encounter instead of a blowout, the SEC still would have looked better than the Big 12, and when you can say that as the calendar turns to February, there should be realistic hope for a meaningful March in SEC country.

photo AP photo by Garett Fisbeck / Oklahoma's Elijah Harkless, left, and Alabama's Keon Ellis go for a loose ball during a Big 12/SEC Challenge game on Saturday in Norman, Okla. Ninth-ranked Alabama lost 66-61 to the No. 24 Sooners.

So who most helped their tournament résumés?

Let's start with Tennessee, which was ranked 12th in The Associated Press preseason poll, rose as high as No. 6, fell to No. 18 after losses to Alabama, Florida and Missouri, and - after blowing out the Jayhawks - should stand no worse than 15th when this week's Top 25 is released. In what may be as complete an effort as the Volunteers have given during Rick Barnes' six seasons as coach on Rocky Top, they hit eight of 13 shots from 3-point range, 16 of 17 free throws, outrebounded the physical Jayhawks 38-23 and surrendered zero second-chance points.

As ageless ESPN analyst Dick Vitale noted in the final minutes of the Vols' win, "Now this is the Tennessee team I expected to see this season rather than the one I saw against Florida."

Indeed, in starting freshman phenoms Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer alongside seniors John Fulkerson and Yves Pons and sophomore Santiago Vescovi, Barnes has not only given himself a more athletic, defensive-minded first five, but also a deeper, more dangerous bench.

This isn't to say the Vols could best either of the unbeaten duo of No. 1 Gonzaga or No. 2 Baylor come the NCAA tournament, but it would seem to indicate the Big Orange are a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.

Also appearing to help themselves tremendously in terms of seeding would be the Florida Gators with their win at No. 11 West Virginia. Bob Huggins' Mountaineers are tough to play anywhere, but especially so in Morgantown, even though no home court is as imposing as in the past due to coronavirus restrictions on attendance.

Still, the Gators have now won four straight, including that 75-49 win over the Vols. When you consider that Florida lost preseason SEC player of the year Keyontae Johnson to a heart ailment in mid-December, the Gators' Mike White should probably be on the short list of SEC coach of the year candidates.

"We've revamped everything we're doing offensively," White told ESPN after Saturday's win. "So that's taken time. When we first came back, we were playing for Keyontae. We were playing on emotion as much as anything. We came back down to Earth a little bit. We've gotten to work and we've gotten better. We've got a ways to go, but we're obviously better than we were a couple weeks ago."

A single stat to understand how much better: On the road against a ranked team that prides itself on winning the transition game from defense to offense, the Gators outscored the Mountaineers 26-5 in fast-break points.

Who isn't getting any better is LSU. The Tigers somehow blew a seven-point lead with a minute to go against No. 10 Texas Tech, getting outscored 12-0 down the stretch of that 76-71 loss.

Said former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade of his Bayou Bengals' collapse, which was also their third loss in four games: "We played extremely hard. We just didn't have some poise and some discipline we needed in key stretches, especially in the last minute."

Poise and discipline are usually what separate the contenders from the pretenders come March. If there is a worry about No. 9 Alabama - undefeated in conference play - it may be the Crimson Tide's dependence on the 3-pointer. It has largely abandoned them in their past two games - a narrow win over Kentucky and Saturday's 66-61 loss at No. 24 Oklahoma, where the officiating did them no favors.

When the triples are falling for the Tide - as they were when they hit 23 of them at LSU - they appear all but unbeatable. When they aren't, you get the sense they could lose in the round of 32 come the NCAA tourney.

Who believes they shouldn't lose in the NCAA tournament is Tennessee. More important, the Vols also seem to understand that nothing less than the total team effort displayed against Kansas will be required for that to have any chance of happening.

To that end, sophomore wing Josiah-Jordan James said of Saturday's win: "To be the team we want to be at the end of the year, holding the national (championship) trophy, we need to become that team. I think tonight was a better showing of our defense, but we definitely need to keep taking steps forward."

After three losses in a seven-game stretch, beating Kansas was a strong start to trying to meet that goal.

Now we'll see if they can continue it within an SEC that knows the Vols as well as they know it.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.