Rick Barnes preaching that struggling Vols still have plenty on the table

AP file photo by Butch Dill / Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes' team has struggled with inconsistency for weeks, and it will soon be tournament time for the Vols.

Despite Tennessee sliding down and then out of The Associated Press Top 25 men's basketball poll in recent weeks, this hasn't been a season without notable performances.

Another such showing could await Sunday at noon, when the Volunteers and Florida collide inside Thompson-Boling Arena with a double bye into the upcoming Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals at stake. The ESPNU-televised showdown marks the regular-season finale for both the Vols (16-7, 9-7 SEC) and Gators (13-7, 9-6), who shredded Tennessee 75-49 during their first meeting this season Jan. 19 in Gainesville.

"Everything we want is still in front of us except for a regular-season championship," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said this week. "We have a chance like anybody else if we can get it back and get it going the way we want. It's almost like it is a new start for us. I look around college basketball, and I see teams that are rolling and then lose three in a row. That isn't making excuses. That's just the kind of year a lot of teams have had, and we've had it.

"To be where we are right now with some of the things that we have dealt with - some that you guys know about and some that you don't - I am proud of these guys."

Barnes didn't elaborate on the unknown circumstances, but injuries have limited freshman guard Jaden Springer (ankle), sophomore guards Josiah-Jordan James (wrist) and Santiago Vescovi (hip), and senior forward Yves Pons (knee) at different stages of SEC play.

When the calendar flipped to 2021, the Vols were 7-0 and coming off a 73-53 thrashing of Missouri, which marked Tennessee's largest road victory ever against a ranked team. Pons and senior forward John Fulkerson combined for 28 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Vols to an 80-61 thrashing of Kansas in the marquee matchup of the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Jan. 30, and the touted freshman tandem of Springer and Keon Johnson erupted Feb. 6 to score 50 points in an 82-71 win at Kentucky.

photo Auburn Athletics photo by Shanna Lockwood / Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson, who scored 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting during last Saturday's 77-72 loss at Auburn, could have more low-post opportunities mixed in when the Volunteers host Florida on Sunday in the regular-season finale for two teams projected for the NCAA tournament.

The win over Kansas, however, remains Tennessee's last triumph against a program projected for the NCAA tournament, a fact that would change with a victory over the Gators.

"I think we're doing great," Fulkerson said. "I know that may be hard to hear, but in our mindset right now, we're knowing that if and when we come together, we can be unstoppable. We've seen it a few times this season. We just have to play together as a team and play for each other.

"We know what that takes and how we can do it. I think we have got full confidence coming into this last part of the season that we can do exactly just that."

Tennessee hasn't played since last Saturday's 77-72 loss at Auburn, with this eight-day gap between games representing the largest for the Vols since their coronavirus-delayed season started. Barnes said after the Auburn game that Johnson could get more looks as a post presence to address a struggling area, and only time will tell whether Tennessee capitalized on the extra practice time.

"When Keon is out there, we post our guards," Barnes said. "We have a package where we're trying to get them in the post as much as we can. All we're trying to do with our guys is put them in the best area where we feel that they're most effective and where they feel most comfortable.

"The biggest thing is that we have to get everybody believing in themselves again."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.