KNOXVILLE — Five games into the Southeastern Conference portion of Tennessee's basketball schedule, the Volunteers had a 2-3 record and were walking off the Rupp Arena floor after a humbling 107-79 loss to Kentucky.
In a few days, the Vols will head to Tampa, Florida, as the SEC tournament's second seed, having won 12 of their past 13 league contests.
"They should be complimented for that," Vols coach Rick Barnes said after Saturday's 78-74 outlasting of Arkansas. "I hope our guys realize that they've had a really nice regular season, but we're in tournament play now, and if you let up and keep throwing lifelines at the wrong time, it ends your season.
"We do have to get better, and you guys saw that today."
The Vols led the Razorbacks by as many as 24 points before holding on to complete a 16-0 run this season inside Thompson-Boling Arena. Auburn (27-4, 15-3), Tennessee (23-7, 14-4), Kentucky (25-6, 14-4) and Arkansas (24-7, 13-5) are the top four seeds in Tampa and will receive double byes into Friday's quarterfinals.
That quartet combined to go 35-1 within the league at home, with Vanderbilt's 75-74 win at Arkansas way back on Jan. 4 serving as the lone setback. Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee combined to go 50-0 overall at home, while the Hogs rebounded from that loss to the Commodores to take down each of this week's top three seeds inside Bud Walton Arena.
Those elite SEC teams will now try to bottle their home-court success as they convene at a neutral site.
"The regular-season chapter is closed," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Saturday on a Zoom call that followed an 82-71 topping of South Carolina. "Now it's the postseason, and it's also March. This is when the stakes are higher, and the reward is even greater.
"Can we get hot? That's the deal. Our defense will carry us, but to win another championship, we're going to have to pick it up offensively."
Auburn has won two of the past five SEC regular-season titles under Pearl and also won the 2019 league tournament, but the Tigers have never won both in the same season, a feat rival Alabama accomplished just last year. Kentucky swept three straight years from 2015-17 — though the Wildcats shared the 2016 regular-season title with Texas A&M — and won the 2018 SEC tourney as well.
Kentucky beat Auburn and LSU by three games to win the 2020 regular season, but that year's tournament was canceled after the opening night due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
"I'm not worried about our conference tournament," Wildcats coach John Calipari said on a Zoom call following Saturday's 71-63 win at Florida. "I know how hard it's going to be, but this stuff is about March for us, and it's always been that way."
SEC TOURNEY SCHEDULE
At Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.
Seeds in parentheses
GAME 1: Missouri (12) vs. Ole Miss (13) at 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 2: Vanderbilt (11) vs. Georgia (14) at 8:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 3: Florida (8) vs. Texas A&M (9) at noon (SEC Network)
GAME 4: LSU (5) vs. Game 1 winner at 2:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 5: South Carolina (7) vs. Mississippi State (10) at 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 6: Alabama (6) vs. Game 2 winner at 8:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 7: Auburn (1) vs. Game 3 winner at noon (ESPN)
GAME 8: Arkansas (4) vs. Game 4 winner at 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
GAME 9: Tennessee (2) vs. Game 5 winner at 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 10: Kentucky (3) vs. Game 6 winner at 8:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
GAME 11: First semifinal at 1 p.m. (ESPN)
GAME 12: Second semifinal at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
GAME 13: Championship game at 1 p.m. (ESPN)