Tampa- It was 1979, the last time Tennessee won the SEC Tournament and held up the trophy on the final day of the conference season. After everything this basketball program has accomplished since then during the regular season, they still haven’t broken that streak. Many are hoping Tennessee embraces the ‘Heel’ persona and smashes Texas A&M’s fantastic run in the process.
We have seen countless teams come through since the Bruce Pearl era that should’ve held up the trophy. I know I am not going back very far for some of the folks that remember the fun before Pearl, but let’s talk recent history. What Rick Barnes has done with Tennessee basketball to put them back on the National stage should not be lost on anyone. He took over a program and injected life back into it. He’s done his job with incredible class, not getting caught up in investigations or having his program disrespected by his own players.
So I rhetorically ask the question of why not now? We all saw what happened in the last time Tennessee defeated Kentucky in the tournament, only to turn around and lose to a very talented Auburn team the next day. I honestly think that is one of the best basketball games I have ever covered while doing this job. But, there was a difference in that game compared to Saturday’s 69-62 win over Kentucky. It didn’t feel as though the pressure was high for this team, because there were still so many questions about this team putting it together for 40 minutes.
Let’s be real honest, walking into that arena in Tampa and seeing how it looked like Rupp Arena, with so many Kentucky fans, I thought this one would be tough. But, I also knew that this Tennessee team played with a chip on their shoulder that most others didn’t possess. They are gritty, led by three guards who aren’t backing down from a challenge and a few post players who will get dirty with anyone, no matter if they are outmatched. We saw this in the earlier matchup in Knoxville and the win over Auburn or the win over Arizona. I could go on, but you get the point.
What opposing teams didn’t count on was Josiah-Jordan James becoming a threat from behind the perimeter and so damn tough on defense. The folks that cover him in Knoxville knew he could be this type of player, but I don’t think it caught on till after he missed that shot against Texas. Something changed, a light switch was flipped, however you want to phrase it, it happened. So what teams are now seeing is a player who can score eight points in under a minute, one that can clamp down on defense and force a turnover or just a guy willing to put everything on the line for a rebound. He has scored 26 points in the last two games and has played 60 minutes, becoming the glue on the court.
It’s not just James, it’s the whole group and their approach. Zakai Zeigler going full speed on every play or Kennedy Chandler finding every possible route to the basket. How about Uros Plavsic? Yes, he might not be the most athletic big man on the court, but he will damn sure make you work for every rebound. He’s full of piss and vinegar, becoming the guy that Rick Barnes can count on to at least make the opposing team work for every play in the paint. Yes, he can get beat on a simple post play, but then he’ll turn around and tap-in a deflection or be that guy who needs to commit a hard foul.
Lastly, what John Fulkerson has been the glue that this squad needed, the old man leadership. He played 29 minutes on Friday and 22 minutes against Kentucky. He scored a combined 11 points and had 9 rebounds, but his veteran thinking is what helped the Vols win against Kentucky. Fulkerson drew the 4th foul on Oscar Tshiebwe late in the 2nd half, then turned around and drew his 5th in just under a minute, taking out the Wildcats best player. The veteran Fulky is smart and knows how to play this game, and he knows when he’s needed.
It could’ve been easy to say yes when Rick Barnes asked him if he wanted to return to the starting lineup once Oliver Nkamhoua went down, but Fulkerson declared that he’s better coming off the bench, something you don’t hear much these days in basketball. He knows what his teammates need out of him and he gives it every night, even if it doesn’t show on the stat sheet.
I say all of that to say this, it’s time for Tennessee to snap the streak. They’ve got the right team and collection of talent to make this happen. This group has taken on a different type role when it comes to the national perception, they’ve turned into the “Heels” on the court, which means bad guy, for all the non-wrestling folks reading this. Rick Barnes has taken a team that had a few question marks during the season and turned them into a threat.
Now it’s time to make good on that threat and hold up the SEC Tournament trophy for the first time since 1979. They deserve it, but that will only happen if this team plays a complete 40 minutes, which we’ve seen them do.
The only way Cinderella (Texas A&M) doesn’t capture the title is if the Vols come out and smash the pumpkin. That’s what a ‘Heel’ would do.