Tennessee (18-11, 9-7 SEC) at Auburn (13-14, 5-11)
Wednesday, March 5, 8:05 p.m. ET
Auburn Arena (9,121) . Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC TV
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads 73-37
Probable Auburn Starters
G-Tahj Shamsid-Deen, 5-10, 163, FR (9.6 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 2.9 apg)
G-Chris Denson, 6-2, 180, SR (19.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.1 spg)
G-KT Harrell, 6-4, 216, JR, (18.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, .355 3FG%)
F-Allen Payne, 6-6, 225, SR, (7.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.6 apg)
C-Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, 7-0, 225, SR (5.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.9 bpg)
Key Reserves: Malcolm Canada (6-3, 225, JR); Dion Wade (6-5, 170, FR); Benas Griciunas (7-0, 225, FR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.1 apg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (19.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, .391 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .395 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.6 orpg)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (14.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.2 orpg)
Key Reserves: Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); Derek Reese (6-8, 220, SO); Armani Moore (6-5, 215, SO)
The opening tip
The final week of the regular season has arrived and Tennessee needs to win out and have a good showing in the SEC tournament to see its name in the NCAA tournament field on Selection Sunday.
It’s very similar to the situation the Vols have been in the last two years. And while they can’t change the past or control exactly what the selection committee is thinking, they are still very much in control of their own destiny if they keep winning.
Wednesday’s game at Auburn has some trap game qualities, however. Tennessee is coming off one of its best performances of the year in a historic 38-point beat down against Vanderbilt. The Vols host Missouri, another team battling for one of the final NCAA tournament spots, on Saturday.
But winning at Auburn against a team playing with little to lose on Senior Night will be tricky. The Tigers kept it interesting against UT in Knoxville on Jan. 15 before folding in the final few minutes of the 78-67 Vols win. And in almost an identical situation last season, UT struggled at Auburn before holding on for a closely-contested seven-point victory.
“Well the reality of it is they are playing at home,” coach Cuonzo Martin said on Monday. “It’s Senior Night for those guys, so they will play with energy and they’ll play with enthusiasm. They will be aggressive.”
Two veteran guards – Chris Denson and KT Harrell – lead the way for the Tigers. Both average just under 20 ppg and either is a threat to have a big night in any given contest.
“They are legitimate scorers,” Martin said. “Legit because you watch how they get the ball, where they get their shots at, how they attack the rim, the way they make plays, they know how to get fouled; they get to the free throw line, but also they have guys that can shoot free throws, 3-pointers and get to the rim.”
Denson and Harrell can certainly hurt UT, but Wednesday is more about which Tennessee team shows up. The Vols have a chance to cruise in this one if they give an effort similar to what they did on Saturday. Get Jarnell Stokes touches inside, have players such as Jordan McRae, Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson hit some 3s and defend at a high level, and UT will roll.
The Vols have made a habit of getting away from that formula at times this season, especially on the road, however. They have lost three of their last four on the road with the only win being a mediocre-at-best effort at lowly Mississippi State.
SEC tournament positioning is on the line as well for UT. One bye is wrapped up, but two wins this week guarantees a double-bye in Atlanta, putting the Vols straight through to the quarterfinals on Friday.
But Martin just wants 40 minutes of focus and energy from his team. That’s been the challenge all year for a squad that hasn’t put together more than a two-game conference winning streak. Auburn isn’t flashy enough to demand UT’s focus, but the Tigers can win if the Vols don’t treat them that way.
“Everything else will take care of itself,” Martin said. “That’s the biggest key. If you win, the seeding will take care of itself.”
Martin said he showed his team some clips from the NCAA tournament as a motivational tool over the last couple of weeks and he even sang a line from the ‘One Shining Moment’ song to the media on Monday:
“Then we let them hear the song, [singing] ‘The ball is tipped..’ I like that, `One Shining Moment,’ I like that. We played that for them. I thought it was fun for our guys. It’s a great feeling when you hear that song and have that opportunity and I want our guys to have that.”
Tennessee has won on an opponent’s Senior Night for eight straight years, including last year’s win at Auburn. . The Vols are tied with Arkansas for fourth in the SEC standings, but control their own destiny since they beat the Razorbacks this season. . The Vols could finish as high as No. 2 or as low as No. 10 in the conference depending on the outcome of games this week in the SEC. . The Vols jumped from No. 52 to No. 48 in the NCAA’s official RPI this week after beating Mississippi State and Vandy last week. . Tennessee remains in ESPN.com’s tournament projections, but out of CBSSports.com’s as of Tuesday morning. . No player on Tennessee’s roster has ever lost to Auburn and the Vols hold a seven-game win streak in the series . Stokes is 13 points shy of 1,000. . The Vols are 2-0 at Auburn Arena, which was built before the 2010-11 season. The Tigers, however, own the all-time edge in Auburn, 26-23.
Tennessee 72, Auburn 67
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga