Tennessee (16-11, 7-7 SEC) at Mississippi State (13-14, 3-11)
Wednesday, Feb. 26, 8:00 p.m. ET
Humphrey Coliseum (10,575) . Starkville, Miss.
TV: SEC TV
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads 77-41
Probable Mississippi State Starters
G-Fred Thomas, 6-5, 204, SO (7.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.4 apg)
G-Trivante Bloodman, 6-0, 186, JR (6.6 ppg, 2.0 rpg, .520 FG%)
G-Craig Sword, 6-3, 193, SO, (13.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.6 apg)
F-Roquez Johnson, 6-7, 210, JR, (9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, .587 FG%)
F-Gavin Ware, 6-9, 262, SO (10.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, .602 FG%)
Key Reserves:Colin Borchert (6-8, 231, FR); Jacoby Davis (6-1, 191, FR); Tevin Moore (6-3, 185, JR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, .316 3FG%)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (19.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .383 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .418 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 3.5 orpg)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (14.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.3 orpg)
Key Reserves:Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); Derek Reese (6-8, 220, SO); A.J. Davis (6-9, 212, FR)
The opening tip
The late-season charge that Cuonzo Martin put together in his first two seasons in Knoxville hasn’t materialized yet in 2014. Needing a strong finish to play its way onto solid footing for the NCAA tournament, the Vols are 2-4 in their last six games.
Their NCAA tournament chances are now in significant jeopardy.
Bracket analysts currently project the Vols as one of the final teams to make the Big Dance or as one of the first teams out. Simply put: Tennessee can’t afford to drop this game at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs have lost nine straight and stand at 3-11 in SEC play. But this UT team has proven over and over again that nothing is a given. The Vols, on paper, should’ve won at Texas A&M on Saturday, but didn’t. And this MSU squad, while clearly struggling, has a win over the Aggies in addition to a victory over Ole Miss.
“Mississippi State, a team that has been battling, coming up short in games, but they continue to battle, play hard, compete,” Martin said at his press conference on Monday. “I think [MSU coach] Rick [Ray] is doing a great job with his guys, probably limiting his numbers. I think they might play seven, sometimes eight guys, but they compete always in games. We have to be locked in, ready to go.”
The Vols have been especially enigmatic on the road. They put two of their most complete performances together (LSU, Alabama) away from home. They’re just 2-5 total in SEC road games, however, and they’ve dropped three straight heading into Wednesday night.
SEC tournament positioning is on the line as well for the Vols. The middle of the SEC pack is log jammed with seven teams, including Tennessee, sitting at 7-7 in conference play and tied for fourth. The top four teams get a double-bye in the SEC tournament. The top 10 get a single bye. UT likely needs one or two wins to secure one free round, while it’ll take a strong finish of three or four wins for a chance to skip straight to the quarterfinals.
“It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in league play before,” Martin said. “For us, our goal is to be on top when the smoke clears and that’s the bottom line. Mississippi State is the most important game on our schedule right now.”
“I would imagine, as a basketball player, it would consume you as far as thinking about it, but what I tell the guys – we watch films, we learn from it, so when it happens again, you’re ready when that situation presents itself more than anything. That’s the thing I talk about – being positive with yourself.”
– Martin on bouncing back from tough losses
Tennessee’s official RPI fell from 51 to 60 after beating Georgia, but losing to Texas A&M last week. . The latest ESPN bracket has UT as one of the last teams in the NCAA tournament, while CBSSports.com’s updated bracket has the Vols out. . Ray and Martin worked as assistants together at Purdue from 2006-08. Martin is 2-0 over Ray as a head coach, including a win over him in the SEC tournament last season . A win on Wednesday would even the all-time series in games played at MSU to 27-27. . Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes ranks fourth nationally in offensive rebounds with 4.3 per game. He is also just 39 points shy of reaching 1,000 for his career.
Tennessee 67, MSU 60
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga