KNOXVILLE — Through all the peak and valleys of this season, the Tennessee basketball team can still finish second in the daunting East Division of the Southeastern Conference with a little help.
Just don’t expect the Volunteers to be keeping too close an eye on what’s going on elsewhere in the SEC today.
“It’s been an amazing, obviously, in the East,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said after Friday’s light practice. “It’s been extremely competitive. We could finish anywhere between second and fifth. We knew it was going to be extremely competitive.”
That competitiveness has resulted in a logjam in the standings on the regular season’s final weekend. But UT’s path to second in the division, which would more importantly result in a first-round bye in next week’s SEC tournament, is simple.
Florida, which is trying to win the outright league title, must beat Vanderbilt in Nashville, and Georgia has to lose at Alabama. The Vols (18-12, 8-7) must then beat Kentucky at home Sunday to create a four-way tie. UT would win the first tiebreaker, which is each team’s record against the teams it’s tied with.
“It’s realistic,” Pearl said. “That’s really not the issue. The issue is for us to continue to try to play better, see if we can put two [halves] together. We haven’t been able to do that in about a month. We’ve got to win. To win we’ve got to play better.”
UT also needs Brian Williams to return. The 6-foot-10 center and the Vols’ leading rebounder has yet to practice this week and missed Thursday’s win at South Carolina with a sore back. He didn’t practice Friday, but Pearl hopes he’ll return for practice this afternoon.
South Carolina dominated the boards in Williams’ absence, and the senior’s physicality will be needed against Kentucky (21-8, 9-6), which was the more physical team in its 73-61 win over UT on Feb. 8. Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, UT’s top two scorers, were both battling through sprained ankles in that game, which won’t be the case Sunday.
“I wanted to go out there whether I was 100 percent or not and do what I could for our team,” said the freshman Harris, who scored a career-high 25 points Thursday.
“I couldn’t really do what I needed to in that first game, but now I’ve got another opportunity to show what I can do against them. This would be a great win for us. It would help us as far as seeding goes and help us pick up even more confidence going into the postseason.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...