NASHVILLE — Tennessee missed one prime opportunity to win a Southeastern Conference men's basketball championship this season.
The eighth-ranked Volunteers don't want to miss another.
Tennessee (27-4) enters Friday's quarterfinals of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena having had a chance to recalibrate after losing 84-80 at Auburn this past Saturday to close the regular season. A win would have given the Vols a share of the league's regular-season championship for the second straight year, but the loss dropped the Vols to the third seed by virtue of a tie with Kentucky. The Vols split their season series with the fourth-ranked Wildcats (26-5), who are seeded second because of their sweep of fifth-seeded Auburn (23-9).
Tennessee spent a month as the top-ranked team in the country but stumbled some down the stretch, losing three of its final seven games in the regular season. It's been an unbelievable season for the Vols by most any standard, but they know they'll ultimately be judged on the next few weeks, not the past four months.
"I think any time you play, you want to win a title. You want to win championships, but they're not easy to come by," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said prior to Thursday's practice at Lipscomb University. "You've got to go out there, and when you're done, you've got to know you've given it your best shot. There's this theory that conference tournaments aren't important, but they're important. All you have to do is look around and watch how hard teams are playing.
"It's important now because they're still a lot of basketball left to be played that could change some things with the NCAA tournament next week."
The Vols have had their struggles this season. All-SEC selection Admiral Schofield went through a shooting slump midway through the schedule. Guard Lamonte Turner is currently in one, going 6-for-25 in his past three games. The Vols have averaged close to eight 3-pointers made per contest, but they have attempted them far too often in games they've lost, settling for the long-range shot on what could be momentum-changing plays.
Barnes said he has talked with Turner about his shot selection and said that it's important for the redshirt junior to "allow himself to be the player he's capable of being." If Turner's struggles continue, or if Alexander — who has struggled with foul trouble during the past month's games — spends more time on the bench, players such as sophomore guard Jalen Johnson and forward Derrick Walker might have to play key minutes.
"We need those guys as much as we need anybody else on the team," said junior forward Grant Williams, the SEC player of the year. "They add more to our game that teams don't really recognize. When Derrick is a presence on the glass, or when Jalen is knocking down shots and doing a good job on the defensive end — same with Kyle when he's blocking shots and being aggressive — we're a totally different team."
Tennessee's quarterfinal is set for 9:30 p.m. EDT Friday against sixth-seeded Mississippi State (23-9), which rolled past 11th-seeded Texas A&M, 80-54, in Thursday's final second-round matchup. The tournament semifinals are Saturday and the title game is Sunday, hours before the NCAA tournament's field and seeds are announced.
The Vols haven't been the last team standing in the SEC tournament since 1979. Their overall success in the regular season has given them a shot at postseason success, but their recent losses mean they might have to defeat Kentucky and either top-seeded LSU (26-5) or fifth-seeded Auburn — the three teams that defeated Tennessee in league play this season — to win it all.
"We haven't done it," point guard Jordan Bone said after Thursday's practice. "This group, we used to be a team that worked hard, and that's our standard. As hard as we have worked the past couple of years, we feel we deserve something like this and we've put ourselves in position to do it, so we're ready to do it."