After debuting to the sound of SEC writers placing them 13th in their own conference, Tennessee has played like a preseason team possessed. Now, the Vols look like a confident tournament team ready to take on the world.
However, Tennessee now faces its toughest challenge yet: a road trip against the No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats followed by a game in Tuscaloosa against a spurty ‘Bama squad. With only a handful of games left before the SEC tournament and then Selection Sunday, each and every game becomes more and more vital to a team’s placement within the tournament bracket.
Lexington has been a bit of a sore spot for Coach Barnes in his three year tenure at Tennessee — well, really, for the basketball program in generally in the last 40 years or so. The Vols haven’t won in Rupp Arena since 2006 and have only triumphed three times there in the past 40 years.
Despite beating the Wildcats three times in a row in Knoxville, Barnes’ Tennessee teams have come up woefully short. In his first trip, the team held its own, losing by ten points. Last year’s 83-58 beatdown was a different story. The Vols had shocked Kentucky in Knoxville three weeks earlier, and didn’t have the same luck in Lexington.
However, this trip is different. For the first time since 2010, the Vols to Rupp as a top-25 team, sitting at No. 15 in the AP Poll. Tennessee’s gritty defense and suddenly electric offense has the Vols playing with more confidence than anything else. S
ome bracketologists say Tennessee has an outside shot at pulling a No. 1 seed in the bracket if it can keep up this run. But to do that, they will have to win road games, especially against teams as inconsistent as Kentucky. The Wildcats have talent, but a loss would no doubt hurt national perception of the Vols.
Tussle in Tuscaloosa
Despite the outcome of Tuesday night’s game in Lexington, whatever it may be, the Vols will have to pack their bags and travel to Tuscaloosa for another tough atmosphere. Alabama has played relatively poorly against lesser teams, but the Crimson Tide have risen to the challenge of teams like No. 8 Auburn and No. 17 Oklahoma.
‘Bama is 4-1 against top 25 opponents this season, including handing the aforementioned Tigers their only conference loss of the season.
Many think this game could be one of the best of the SEC season. In reality, it may only serve as the second best game of the week following a good matchup of Tennessee and Kentucky. The good news for Vols fans is that the two teams are nearly identical on paper.
Both are aggressive on defense, score around the same amount of points per game and don’t back down forom a challenge. Both squads seem ready to take a win on Saturday in what could be a big game for SEC Tournament seeding.
What’s Left Has Big Implications
After the dust has settled and the Vols return home, Tennessee fans should have a firm idea of what exactly the orange and white are capable of down the home stretch of the season. If Tennessee can’t keep its five-game win streak rolling and then fails to bounce back at Alabama, it will be facing an undeniable blemished week in its remarkable season.
If Tennessee beats Kentucky and loses to Alabama, Vols fans will finally again feel the relief of winning a game in Lexington. The Vols will add a quality road win and a win against a ranked opponent to their resume. A loss to ‘Bama will bring down the emotional high and resume boost, but won’t be the end of the world.
If Tennessee hands both Kentucky and Alabama a loss this week, the Vols will put a firm hold on the No. 2 spot in the conference. The wins could even add some ground on Auburn and tempt Tennessee’s chances at a regular season SEC championship.
Two big road wins will also add to Tennessee’s tournament resume, one that already includes a win over a “near-lock” No. 1 seed in Purdue. Even with six games after this week, no two allow the Vols to leave their mark like the two matchups this week do.