Tennessee (8-5, 0-1 SEC) at Alabama (8-6, 0-1 SEC)
Saturday, Jan. 12, 1:00 p.m. ET
Coleman Coliseum (15,316) . Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Alabama leads, 74-65
Probable Alabama Starters
F-Nick Jacobs, 6-8, 265, SO, (4.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.1 bpg)
F-Devonta Pollard, 6-8, 200, FR, (6.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
G-Rodney Cooper, 6-6, 215, SO, (12.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg)
G-Trevor Lacey, 6-3, 215, SO, (12.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.4 apg)
G-Trevor Releford, 6-0, 195, JR, (16.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .426 3PT)
Key Reserves: Andrew Steele (6-4, 225, SR); Levi Randolph (6-5, 205, SO); Moussa Gueye (7-0, 255, JR).
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (11.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .539 FG)
F-Kenny Hall, 6-9, 230, SR, (6.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .9 spg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, SR, (12.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, .339 3PT)
G-Trae Golden, 6-1, 205, JR, (11.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.3 apg)
Key Reserves: Skylar McBee (6-3, 195, SR); Brandon Lopez (6-1, 178, SO); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); Derek Reese (6-7, 218, FR).
The opening tip
It’s not time to hit the panic button just yet, but despite SEC play just beginning, Tennessee has a minor sense of urgency as it loads up the buses for its SEC road opener at Alabama on Saturday. The Vols dropped their last two to Memphis and Ole Miss. The 92-74 loss to the Rebels in Knoxville on Wednesday was not how coach Cuonzo Martin envisioned starting out the SEC slate.
With five losses already, Tennessee will need to pile up a healthy sum of SEC wins to bolster its NCAA Tournament hopes. That likely means a minimum league record of 11-7 will be required to get UT thinking about a return to the Big Dance. The postseason is still a long way off, but Tennessee can’t afford to fall too far behind in the SEC.
It must play better on the road as well. The Vols were 3-6 in SEC road play last season, including a frustrating 62-50 loss at Alabama to a Crimson Tide squad that was missing multiple key players to suspension in that contest. Tennessee is 0-2 on the road thus far this season and has scored an average of only 41.5 points per game in those two contests.
Beating the Crimson Tide, a team that has lost six of its last eight, is certainly feasible, even for a struggling Tennessee team. But Alabama, despite some early-season frustrations, has a backcourt that can go off on any given night. Releford, a preseason All-SEC selection, is coming off a 26-point night against Missouri. And though Alabama is no offensive juggernaut, the Vols are coming off their worst back-to-back stretch of defensive performances in the Martin era after giving up 92 and 85 to Ole Miss and Memphis, respectively.
Tennessee sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes on bouncing back from the Ole Miss loss: “I feel like the SEC has so many evenly-matched teams and you can get blown out. We feel like we can win every game from here on out. I don’t think this game took anyone’s confidence, so we should win the next couple of games.”
The knee injury of forward Jeronne Maymon has received the most attention, but at least four other Vols will likely be less than 100 percent when they take the floor at Alabama – Golden (shoulder), McBee (elbow), Reese (ankle) and swingman D’Montre Edwards (knee) are all playing through pain. . The Vols have just three wins in Tuscaloosa since 1998. . McRae scored a combined 52 points in the last two games for Tennessee. That’s the most in a two-game span since former guard Scotty Hopson dropped 55 in back-to-back game in February of 2011 against South Carolina and Georgia. . The Vols need more production out of Golden and McBee. Over the last three games, those two have combined to hit just 6 of 34 attempts from the field (17.6 percent).
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga