Tennessee (19-11, 10-7 SEC) vs. Missouri (21-9, 9-8)
Saturday, March 8, 4:00 p.m. ET
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,671) • Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Missouri leads 5-3
Probable Missouri Starters
G-Jordan Clarkson, 6-5, 193, JR (18.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg)
G-Jabari Brown, 6-5, 214, JR (20.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .426 3FG%)
G-Earnest Ross, 6-5, 228, SR, (13.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.3 spg)
F-Johnathan Williams III, 6-9, 223, FR, (6.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.9 orpg)
C-Ryan Rosburg, 6-10, 252, SO (4.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, .699 FG%)
Key Reserves: Wes Clark (6-0, 171, FR); Tony Criswell (6-9, 240, SR); Torren Jones (6-8, 234, FR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.1 apg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (19.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .388 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .385 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.6 orpg)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (14.5 ppg, 10.3 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 NCAA tournament doesn’t start for two more weeks, but this matchup might be considered a play-in game for the Vols and Tigers.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a play-out game. Neither team can clinch a berth with this win. But the two teams, both currently listed as “on the fence” in CBSSports.com’s bubble analysis, would certainly be in major trouble if they lose this one.
SEC tournament seeds will be decided by the end of Saturday as well. Tennessee gets a ticket straight to the quarterfinals with a win, clinching at least the No. 4 seed and a double bye in Atlanta. A UT win and a Georgia loss at LSU on Saturday puts the Vols as the No. 3 seed.
A loss makes the scenarios more complicated. The Vols would be in danger of losing their double bye and might have to play on Thursday instead of beginning on Friday, all depending on the results of other games this Saturday.
UT lost at Missouri on Feb. 15, but there’s a lot of optimism on Tennessee’s side that this outcome will be different. That’s because Tennessee is playing, in many people’s opinion, its best basketball of the season.
The Vols have put together their first three-game conference winning streak of the season and they have been particularly dominant in their last two games against Vanderbilt and Auburn, blasting the Commodores and Tigers by a combined total of 158-92.
The defense has been suffocating. Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are getting touches in the paint and passing when the double team arrives. And, perhaps most importantly, the guards are knocking down shots. Point guard Antonio Barton has been especially hot the last two games, knocking down 9 of 15 from behind the arc in that span.
And the Vols have done a lot of their damage without leading scorer Jordan McRae having huge nights. Coach Cuonzo Martin recently said McRae is a little banged up, but if he is feeling better by Saturday, the Vols should have plenty of firepower.
Playing at home also plays significantly into UT’s favor. The Vols have won six of their last seven in Knoxville and are 13-3 on the season at Thompson-Boling Arena. Missouri, meanwhile, has struggled on the road, posting a 3-6 record with four straight losses.
Led by SEC Player of the Year candidates Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, the Tigers have one of the best backcourt units in the conference, if not the nation. Throw in Earnest Ross and that starting trio averages over 50 points per contest.
Tennessee will need to continue its stingy perimeter defense against the Tigers. Contain the guards, and UT has a great chance of heading to Atlanta on a four-game winning streak.
"I think what helped us is Antonio. I think you can reach a high level of success with a good point guard. I don't care what you have on the interior and I don't care what you have on the wing, if you have a good point guard, you will have success. He helps us defensively, because he is the most vocal. It used to be Jeronne, but I think Antonio has really stepped up and been that guy."
– Martin on what has sparked UT in recent games
Tennessee will honor its four seniors – McRae, Maymon, Barton and D’Montre Edwards – before the game. All four either already have their degree or are on track to get it by this summer. … ESPN’s most recent RPI has Tennessee at No. 51 with a schedule ranked No. 15 in the nation. … Tennessee hosted Missouri on Senior Day last year and pulled out a 64-62 victory. … The Vols are encouraging fans to be at the game by 3:45 p.m. for Senior Day festivities. … Tennessee hasn’t trailed a game since the final seconds of overtime at Texas A&M on Feb. 22. … Tennessee reserve guard Quinton Chievous’ father, Derrick Chievous is Missouri’s all-time leading scorer. … A win on Saturday would secure UT’s 24th all-time 20-win season.
Tennessee 78, Missouri 65
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga