Tennessee looking to put SEC tournament double bye to good use

USA Today photo by Randy Sartin / Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer and senior forward Yves Pons defend Florida junior guard Tyree Appleby during Sunday afternoon's 65-54 win by the Volunteers.

It doesn't take long in sports, whether in team competitions or individual tournaments such as tennis and wrestling, to learn that getting a bye is a very good thing.

Receiving a bye typically means that a team or an individual is pretty stout to begin with, and there is also one less step to a championship.

Tennessee has earned the fourth and final double bye in this week's Southeastern Conference basketball tournament in Nashville, where the Volunteers (17-7, 10-7 SEC) don't have to play until Friday afternoon's quarterfinals. The Vols have landed a double bye on two previous occasions under coach Rick Barnes and reached the tournament championship each time, losing to Kentucky in 2018 and to Auburn in 2019.

The Vols haven't won an SEC tournament title since 1979.

"Winning is hard, and it's supposed to be," Barnes said. "Obviously you would like to think that getting the double bye works to your advantage. I've seen some teams take advantage of being in the fourth seed."

Kentucky won the 2018 SEC tournament as the fourth seed, while Auburn won it the following year as the fifth seed, which meant Bruce Pearl's Tigers had to win four games in four days. Arkansas in 2000, Georgia in 2008 and Mississippi State in 2009 are the only other instances in which teams have claimed the event with four victories since the league expanded to 12 programs with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina in the 1991-92 season.

The expansion with Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012 has resulted in the potential to win five games in five days, but a league squad has yet to play all the way from Wednesday night to Sunday afternoon.

"This is the time of year where you hope guys get really excited about playing and wanting to play," Barnes said. "If you start watching basketball this time of year, it does almost get down to a one possession game where every possession matters. The mental part is really important, but physically you have to be healthy.

"Like with Villanova. They've lost two players, and it breaks your heart."

Tennessee looked healed up and effective during Sunday's 65-54 win over visiting Florida, turning a 31-17 first-half deficit into a 53-43 second-half lead with a rousing 36-12 run. The Vols could face the fifth-seeded Gators again Friday, provided Florida wins Thursday afternoon against the winner of Wednesday night's tournament opener between 12th-seeded Vanderbilt and 13th-seeded Texas A&M.

"It really doesn't matter what's happened before this point," Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson said after Sunday's win. "Now is really the time that it counts. We have two tournaments where we've got to go out and play our best basketball, and I think we have found our team and found our identity this last week, and I think we showed it."

Said fellow senior forward Yves Pons: "That's the team we are. We're a tough team. We're physical. At one point today we were unstoppable. We played together. We played great defense. Everyone was doing their job, and we're a tough team when we're like that."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.