The SEC Men's Basketball Tournament kicks off Thursday at 1 p.m. in Atlanta. With the field of 12 squared away, the Volunteers travel to the Georgia Dome with high hopes of validating their case to be on the inside of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
After a hard-fought loss to Kentucky this past Sunday, the Vols dropped from a possible two seed in the Eastern division to the five seed. The Vols will face an Arkansas squad that beat the Big Orange in Fayetteville, Ark., 68-65 in the Vols' conference opener earlier in the season. A Tobias Harris 3-pointer as time expired would have forced overtime against the Razorbacks.
The Vols will not be outmatched going into Thursday's 7:30 p.m. opening round, but Bruce Pearl's team must focus on its strengths and channel its inner vindication in order to overcome Arkansas.
The Vols have outscored their opponents in the paint in 26 of their 31 games this season. Arkansas' victory in early January stemmed from its ability to outscore the Vols in the paint. Delvon Johnson, a senior forward of Arkansas, led the Razorbacks with 17 points that game.
Brian "Big Baby" Williams, recently named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year, will be hoping to return from back soreness to quell the Razorbacks' efforts in the paint.
"I'm sore right now, but I'm going to get in playing shape quick," Williams said after practice Monday. "It's a quick turnaround before the Arkansas game. I'm glad I'm back, and I think my teammates are glad I'm back."
A win over the Hogs will be a statement to the NCAA selection committee, as well as a final, tangible verification of the Vols' resilience this season. Pearl mentioned the importance of coming out on top this Thursday.
"The bottom line is, if we continue to win, we help ourselves," Pearl said. "If we don't, we put ourselves in position where we leave it to chance."
If the Vols do continue to win, on Friday they will face Florida, a team that edged Tennessee twice — once in overtime in Knoxville and once by a point in Gainesville.
Although every team will emphasize that it is not looking past the game at hand, factually the Vols will face Vanderbilt, Mississippi State or LSU if they win their first two games.
Despite having a 3-4 record against the teams on its side of the bracket, Tennessee outscored these opponents by a combined 471-448 in the regular season. The Vols might be the underdog by seeding, but this team has the ability to run the length of the court with each of these opponents.
Validating their spot in the NCAA tournament will not be the only reinforcement the Vols will be doing in Atlanta. Scotty Hopson will look to play to his newest accolade, All-SEC First Team, by putting his slashing playmaking abilities on display. Tobias Harris, All-SEC Second Team and SEC All-Freshman Team, must continue his strong play from the field and on the glass.
"I feel like it's an honor and I'm thankful for it, but I feel like there's a lot more to be done both for myself and for this team," Hopson said. "Myself and everyone else, we're looking at it as, this is tournament time, records don't matter anymore."