Wiedmer: UT is SEC's best hoops team for now, but Auburn could be come March

Wiedmer: UT is SEC's best hoops team for now, but Auburn could be come March

December 11th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee's Yves Pons, left, and Kyle Alexander celebrate the Vols' win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga in Phoenix in early December.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

All throughout the Volunteer State on Monday, the words filled the damp, cold air as often as Salvation Army bells.

"How about those Vols?" came the oft-repeated line.

And for the first time since 2010 — the last time the Tennessee men's basketball program defeated a No. 1-ranked opponent — the excitement wasn't over a football win.

Rather it was the Volunteers' dramatic 76-73 victory over Gonzaga on Sunday, a victory to vault UT to No. 3 in the newest Associated Press poll and drop the Zags from first to fourth.

If anything shows how willing UT coach Rick Barnes is to play the best in order to become the best, new No. 1 Kansas was fortunate to edge the Vols in overtime last month in the Preseason NIT title game.

Said Barnes on Monday as he recalled his first-ever win over a top-ranked foe in 32 years of coaching: "An official came over to me and said, 'This feels like March.' I said, 'Well, let's referee like March.' It had that feel. I think we all felt that."

The whole Southeastern Conference expected to feel that way by now. This was going to be the year the league became the nation's best. Kentucky started off the season at No. 2 in the preseason poll but now stands 19th after getting blown out by Duke to start the season and losing to unranked Seton Hall this past Saturday in Madison Square Garden.

Then there's Auburn (8-1), which now stands No. 8, its lone loss a solid six-point setback to Duke in Maui during Thanksgiving week. And the Tigers are about to get a huge talent upgrade when former starter Danjel Purifoy — who is 6 feet, 7 inches and 230 pounds of chiseled skill — returns after a one-year, nine-game suspension for his supposed links to the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.

Said Auburn shooting guard Bryce Brown after scoring 34 points in an 82-72 home win over Dayton this past weekend: "(Danjel) adds another dimension to our team. It gives us another shooter out there. He can see the floor pretty well. He can knock down shots, and he's another big body."

Purifoy was a big enough contributor as a redshirt freshman during the 2016-17 season that he averaged 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds.

Now that he's back for Saturday's game at Alabama-Birmingham, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl finally will be able to wear opponents down with the 10-man rotation he's dreamed of having for more than a season.

And that's where Tennessee's stunning body of work so far this year may not even prove enough to tie Auburn again for the regular-season SEC title, as the Vols did last year.

Because if Purifoy is close to the player he was before the suspension, and the Tigers can play for 40 minutes as they did for the final 30 minutes against Duke in Hawaii, Pearl just might be the SEC coach with the best chance to reach the Final Four, rather than the Vols' Barnes.

Yes, UT is the best team in the SEC on this 11th day of December. In senior forward Admiral Schofield the Vols have the kind of inside-outside scoring threat who can carry you on his back for long stretches of time, as he did Sunday in scoring 25 of his game-high 30 points in the final half, including the nerveless game-winner.

Beyond that, Barnes may finally be getting the coaching credit he's long deserved for remarkable performances at Providence, Clemson, Texas and now Tennessee.

While a defensive error by Gonzaga left Schofield wide open for his game-winner, there was no such defensive lapse by the Vols when it mattered most. Instead, after trailing 58-50 against the only team to beat dynamite Duke this season, UT outscored the Zags 26-15 down the stretch.

Yet as solid and connected as the Vols are, they may still come up short on raw talent and what television analyst Clark Kellogg long ago termed "the spurtability factor" in Auburn.

After all, just a year ago Auburn came to Knoxville without both center Austin Wiley and Purifoy and shocked UT by 10 points. That defeat kept the Vols from winning the league outright. Now a fully stocked Tigers squad would seem to be even more trouble for the Big Orange.

It's all such a change from a year ago, when Yahoo! Sports' Pete Thamel told the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum, "I would be stunned if Bruce Pearl is the Auburn coach next year. I can't wrap my mind around the sense that he will be back."

Somehow, some way, not only is Pearl back, but so are Wiley and Purifoy. And Pearl seems so focused on winning big and by his master plan that when Brown erupted for those 34 against Dayton and backcourt running make Jared Harper added 20, Bruce Almighty groused, "We play our best when everybody contributes. So I'm not interested in Bryce scoring 34 and Jared 20 and them having to carry us like that."

No, he's interested in having 10 players carry similar loads, his team so balanced that no coach can solve the Tigers attack well enough over 40 full minutes to stop them.

For now, UT richly deserves its lofty ranking and the perception that it's the SEC's best. But come March, if Pearl's jammers are clicking on all 10 cylinders, it's Auburn that may well become the NCAA tournament's most difficult team to defeat.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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