KNOXVILLE — Regardless of the hand it has been dealt, the Tennessee men's basketball team has almost always found a way to be competitive in the Southeastern Conference tournament since coach Rick Barnes took over.
The eighth-ranked Volunteers hope that trend continues this weekend in Nashville.
In 2016, the 12th-seeded Vols ran by Auburn 97-59 in the play-in game before knocking out fifth-seeded Vanderbilt 67-65 in the second round, then bowing out to fourth-seeded LSU in the quarterfinals, 84-75.
Seeded ninth in 2017, the Vols lost by a basket to eighth-seeded Georgia in the second round, but last season as the No. 2 seed, Tennessee received a double bye into the quarterfinals, squeaking by Mississippi State and beating Arkansas before falling to Kentucky in the title game.
This year's Vols (27-4) are seeded third and so again receive a double bye into Friday's quarterfinals, with their game set for 9:30 p.m. EDT at Bridgestone Arena. They will face the winner of Thursday's second-round meeting between sixth-seeded Mississippi State (22-9) and 11th-seeded Texas A&M (14-17), which beat 14th-seeded Vanderbilt 69-52 in a first-round game late Wednesday night to end the Commodores' season at 9-23.
"I think it's eagerness to play," Barnes said recently of the reason for success. "You have to want to play, embrace (it). Know that you work hard all year. I don't even know who we'll end up playing, obviously. Whether it's someone you've already played twice (this season) or are getting ready to play for a second time, the familiarity is so much, you know each other so well.
"It's hard. You just hope your guys, again, like any other game, are locked in, knowing that it is a tournament. If you want to continue to play in the tournament, you have to win. But it will always get back to doing what you've done when you're playing your best basketball. Plain and simple. You have to stay together, stay focused on the game plan, not letting the emotion of the game overwhelm you. You just have to stay locked in to playing good basketball."
Because the Vols won't know their Friday opponent until late Thursday night, the scouting gets difficult. Tennessee assistants were going to watch the two games involving potential quarterfinal opponents to have a clue as to who is doing what and who might be available for each.
Tennessee's regular season was backloaded with its most difficult games, and the Vols went 4-3 in their final seven, with the losses on the road to Auburn, Kentucky and LSU. A win at Auburn in this past Saturday's finale would have given the Vols a share of the SEC championship for the second straight year.
While they missed out on that, they still earned extra practice time before the postseason, which also brings an opportunity to regroup mentally for what's ahead in Nashville and in the NCAA tournament.
"We knew coming down the stretch that we were in that gauntlet kind of schedule," Barnes said. "I think I go back to the beginning of the year, I mean, I don't know if you had asked me at the beginning of the year to put a number of wins on our team what I would say. When you look back at where we are today, these guys have a lot to be proud of, and the fact that we're disappointed is a good thing for our program. We had a chance to be a part of back-to-back championship regular seasons, but it's hard to do that. The fact that we were in it, I'm proud of our guys for putting themselves in that position.
"You'd like to be the kind of program that's there, knowing that every year it's hard to get it done. They put themselves in position, which is a great thing to do, and we came up short. Not to take anything away from our opponents, but we had to fight. They fought hard this year, and now we just have to get ready for the tournaments and see how we can do."