Vols brace for Tide in key game

Tennessee basketball adds another graduate transfer (Image 1)

Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray said Tennessee didn't need to beat his team Thursday to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Vols Coach Cuonzo Martin agreed.

“I said after the Missouri game we were in,'' Martin said after his team disposed of the Bulldogs, 69-53 and now await a rested Alabama team Friday that has 20 wins.

It's fine for Ray and Martin to give their opinions on whether the Vols are a lock or not. But as far as I know, neither one of them is sitting in the hotel suite in Indianapolis making those decisions.

My advice to the Vols will be to put Alabama away Friday. Then, and only then, can they feel confident they will be one of the 68 teams receiving a dance card.

Bracketologists Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi both have Tennessee one of the last four teams to make the NCAA Tournament. Palm has Alabama as one of the last four teams out. With an impressive win over Tennessee, Alabama and the Vols could swap places and it places even more emphasis on Friday's game.

I think the Alabama-Tennessee game is a loser stays home situation.

It's why the Vols can't afford to take too much away from the 16-point win over a State team that was playing with only six scholarship players.

Tennessee got off to an impressive start early, but had to withstand several runs by State during a sloppy second half. That won't get it done against a more potent Alabama team that can get to the NCAA Tournament if it can find a way to post an impressive win over Tennessee. Likewise, I think Tennessee can punch its ticket if it takes care of Alabama. The two teams split in the regular season. Alabama won 68-65 in Tuscaloosa, and it was a 54-53 home win over Bama that sparked the Vols on a late season roll.

“That game finally got us over the hump as far as winning close games,'' said Tennessee's center Jarnell Stokes, who posted 10 points and nine boards against Mississippi State.

It's that late season surge that gives the Vols an advantage over Bama. The Vols won eight of their last nine games, including a win over a cinch NCAA Tournament team, Missouri. Alabama was 6-4 in its last 10, with a costly loss to lowly Auburn.

Besides having a soft schedule, Alabama lost back-to-back early season games to cupcakes Mercer and Tulane, not exactly material to make the selection committee take notice.

Martin has to be concerned with the 16 turnovers his team made against Mississippi State. The scrappy Bulldogs finished with 11 steals.

The style of play Thursday made purists feel as if they had undergone a dental procedure without any novocaine. It was not unlike a lot of SEC games this season and why the league doesn't deserve more than four teams in the Big Dance.

 At one point in the game, there were some half-dozen players mud-wrestling on the floor in an attempt to control the ball. It was 2013 SEC basketball at its finest.

Martin is confident his team has more basketball to play.

“I think we're a good basketball team,'' he said. “We have guys that are scoring the ball. For us, it starts with Jarnell Stokes. Trae (Golden) is also playing at the level we expect Tray to play.''

With four players in double figures Thursday, the Vols have a lot of players who can get hot. They would stretch the lead against State, but then they would allow the lead to shrink. The Vols need to put teams away and close the gate.

“I think that's something we have to develop. I feel like we went out on a 16-point margin and that's something you have to develop as far as the killer instinct where you go up 25,'' Stokes said.

Alabama will be a tough out. It promises to be a stern test for the men in orange.

You can contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at joebiddle11@gmail.com.

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