#4 Tennessee (20-11, 11-7 SEC) vs. #13 South Carolina (14-19, 5-13)
Friday, March. 13, 3:30 p.m. ET
The Georgia Dome • Atlanta, Ga.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads 39-23
Winner plays the winner of #1 Florida vs. #8 Missouri on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET (ABC)
Probable South Carolina Starters
G-Brenton Williams, 5-11, 172, SR (15.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2,8 apg)
G-Sindarius Thornwell, 6-5, 206, FR, (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, .358 3FG%)
F-Michael Carerra, 6-5, 215, SO, (6.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
F-Mindaugas Kacinas, 6-7, 210, SO (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, .566 FG%)
C-Demetrius Henry, 6-9 215, FR (4.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .418 FG)
Key Reserves: Duane Notice (6-2, 221, FR); Justin McKie (6-4, 195, FR); Laimonas Chatkevicius (6-7, 210, SO)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, .392 3FG%)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (18.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .376 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .370 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, .528 FG%)
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
While most assumed Tennessee would be facing Arkansas in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament on Friday afternoon, South Carolina had different plans.
Few gave the Gamecocks much thought as they came to Atlanta as the No. 13 seed, but they knocked off Auburn, shocked the Razorbacks and now are aiming to do the same to Tennessee.
The Vols, meanwhile, lost a chance to get another quality win over Arkansas, but, regardless of opponent, they must take care of as much of their own business as possible in Atlanta to feel better about their NCAA tournament status. A win over the Gamecocks certainly wouldn’t guarantee anything, but a loss to a team with an RPI of over 100 like USC would be a large mark against UT in the selection committee’s eyes.
Looking at how South Carolina finished the regular season, this run didn’t come out of nowhere. The Gamecocks knocked off Kentucky on March 1 and then finished off Mississippi State to end the season on a small, though unexpected, winning streak.
Freshman guards Duane Notice, who scored 11 points against Arkansas, and Sindarius Thornwell, an All-SEC freshman selection, have helped the Gamecocks along in their four-game winning streak. Sixth man forward Laimonas Chatkevicius has been playing closer to starter’s minutes and has given the Gamecocks a boost inside with a 6-foot-10 frame and a nice touch in the lane.
And while South Carolina has done some good things down the stretch, the Vols, second in the conference in scoring defense at 61.8 points per game, will be the favorites on Friday particularly because of their stingy D that’s shown up lately.
They gave up an average of just 45.7 points per game during the run of three routs against Vanderbilt, Auburn and Missouri. While the offense has come and gone at times, it seems the Vols have finally begun playing the level of defense coach Cuonzo Martin has always expected.
"I think we probably started showing flashes of what we can do against Alabama [on Feb. 2],” said guard Josh Richardson, who was named to the All-SEC defensive team this week. “I think it all came together against Vanderbilt. I am not really sure what the difference is, I just remember coming out with a lot of intensity against Vandy and guys were just locked in. I feel like guys are staying focused in the games more."
Offensively, the Vols have been led by point guard Antonio Barton down the stretch. After a frustrating mid-year slump, the senior has knocked down 13 of his last 22 3-pointers heading into the SEC tournament and has handled the point admirably.
Forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have done a great job on the offensive glass and when teams have doubled, they turn into passers, finding teammates such as Barton, leading scorer Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson, who have been knocking down their open shots recently.
If the Vols are going to make a run in the SEC tournament, they’ll need some help from the bench as well. Derek Reese, Armani Moore and Darius Thompson have settled in as UT’s three key contributors outside of the starting five. Getting quality minutes on both ends from those three will be important as the Vols try to put together three wins to guarantee an NCAA tournament berth.
Martin on if he talks to his players about UT’s poor history in the SEC tournament:
"Don't even address it. None of these guys played 40 or 50 years ago. It is what it is. For us, it's Friday do everything in your power, try to win that ball game. Saturday, keep moving, but I don't get caught up in all that. Hopefully they don't either."
The Vols beat South Carolina 72-53 in Knoxville in their only meeting this season. … Tennessee is just 5-9 all-time in the Georgia Dome. UT’s three major programs (men’s and women’s basketball and football) are just 9-16 there. … The Vols haven’t won the SEC tournament since 1979. … A win would give the Vols a five-game winning streak, their longest of the season. … McRae and Stokes were both named First Team All-SEC by the league’s coaches this week. … The Vols enter the week at No. 44 in the NCAA’s official RPI. … Martin is 4-5 all-time in conference tournaments. … The Vols haven’t made the semifinals of the SEC tournament since 2010 (in Nashville). … Tennessee is 4-5 on the year against the six teams on its side of the bracket, including an 0-2 mark against Florida, its most likely semifinal opponent.
Credit South Carolina for not giving up on the season. The Gamecocks are battling despite a forgettable season and they won't go to any kind of postseason unless they make a miraculous run all the way through the SEC tournament. But Tennessee is just the better team. The Vols have a bad track record in the Georgia Dome and in the SEC tournament, but they'll find a way to make it through to the semifinals and set up a likely third matchup with Florida this season.
Tennessee 76, South Carolina 60
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga