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Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes, second from right, and his staff watch the third-ranked Vols' rout of the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
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Mark Wiedmer

KNOXVILLE — And you thought Bevo against Uga was a mismatch at the Sugar Bowl.

However much the real-life Texas longhorn intimidated Georgia's cuddly little bulldog Tuesday night in New Orleans, it was nothing compared to what Tennessee's third-ranked basketball team did to its Georgia counterpart Saturday afternoon inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

Never mind that the 96-50 final score was one point shy of tying the largest Southeastern Conference win ever for the Volunteers, which occurred when UT blasted Ole Miss 102-55 in 1966. This came against a Georgia squad that had won five of its previous six games, including an 11-point victory at Georgia Tech, its lone loss in that stretch coming by two points to an Arizona State squad that was ranked at the time.

But as good a performance as it was for all the Vols — coach Rick Barnes emptied his bench and five players scored in double figures — no one played better than senior post player Kyle Alexander, who finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, one blocked shot and at least half a dozen pass deflections, including two late that saved probable dunks.

"Kyle was like a spider monkey out there," said Jordan Bowden, who led the Big Orange onslaught with 20 points. "He was getting every rebound out there. Coach is always on him hard. But Kyle responds to it."

A single possession to show Alexander's worth through 12 wins in UT's first 13 starts: With 11:17 to go in the opening half, Admiral Schofield missed a jump shot and Alexander rebounded. Then Bowden missed a jumper and Alexander rebounded that miss, too.

Finally, Grant Williams gave Alexander the ball and the long, lanky Canadian swished a short turnaround from about eight feet out.

The Vols' silent assassin had struck again.

"I thought Kyle was terrific," Barnes said afterward. "The more he can do that, the more we'll get better as a team."

If the Vols can get much better than they played Saturday, they not only are going to repeat as regular-season SEC champs but aren't going to be sharing that title with another team, as they had to do with Auburn a year ago.

It wasn't just that they won the boards 45-30, or limited Georgia to 32 percent from the floor (17-of-53), including 1-of-20 from the 3-point line (5 percent), or that they had 25 assists on 34 made baskets. It was the way they never let up, especially Alexander, who was still diving on the floor and taking charges inside the final three minutes, when the Vols were ahead by more than 40.

Williams and Schofield may deservedly grab more headlines. Jordan Bone and Bowden may make more offensive memories. But it just might be Alexander who best does all those little things that often spell the difference in victory and defeat.

"I have to credit our coaching," Alexander said. "With Coach Barnes, it's an every-possession kind of game with him. Sometimes in the past, when we've had the kind of first half we had today (ahead 53-24 at the break), our defense has slipped the second half. At halftime today he said, 'Let's see how mature we are.'"

They're obviously mature. Alexander and Schofield are seniors. Bowden, Bone, Williams and Lamonte Turner — back for the first time in six weeks from a sore shoulder — are juniors. Derrick Walker and Yves Pons are athletic sophomores.

It is the kind of class makeup that has won the past three NCAA titles for Villanova (2016 and 2018) and North Carolina (2017). It is the kind of makeup that figures to give UT the best chance it has ever had to reach its first Final Four come April.

"We know there are things we still need to work on," Bowden said. "We've still got a lot of improving to do."

Added Alexander: "It's like Coach told us earlier this week, 'We're not going to be having any more 20-point blowouts.'"

No, one game into conference play they've just had their biggest blowout win of the season, much to the delight of the 21,678 fans who filled the Boling Alley for the second-biggest SEC win in school history.

This isn't to say that every league game going forward will be like this. Georgia has a young team and a new coach and not an all-conference candidate in sight. There are at least a handful of conference teams — Auburn, Kentucky, Vanderbilt at home, Florida at home and perhaps Alabama, which knocked off UK in Tuscaloosa on Saturday — capable of challenging UT.

But this should also be considered: A year ago, the Vols lost on a late shot to Loyola-Chicago in their second-round NCAA tournament game at least partly, if not largely, because Alexander was out with an injury.

Had the 6-foot-11 Alexander been on the court against the smallish Ramblers, they almost certainly would have struggled to drive to the basket, which they did at will in his absence.

And had UT advanced past Loyola, the regional would have opened up, with the Vols almost certainly favored to beat either Nevada or Kansas State, which would have been the two opponents standing between them and the Final Four.

No one will ever know for sure what might have happened had Alexander not missed the Loyola game. But Bowden believes he has a pretty good idea.

Asked if a healthy Alexander would have meant advancement to the Sweet 16 last season, Bowden instantly replied, "No doubt."

Playing as he did against Georgia, there should also be no doubt that Alexander makes the Vols the best team in the SEC, if not the nation.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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