published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Point to prove: Vols seek better run in SEC

KNOXVILLE — It's been 370 days, yet the memory remains fresh in the minds of Jarnell Stokes and his Tennessee basketball teammates.

Ole Miss 77, Tennessee 72, read the New Orleans Arena scoreboard.

The Volunteers' unlikely run from an 8-10 start overall to the SEC tournament's second seed disappeared just like that and left Tennessee short of the program's seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

As Stokes and the Vols take the stage at this season's SEC tournament in Nashville in a similar situation, the recollection of last season's one-and-done disappointment lingers.

"It definitely motivates us," he said Monday. "Watching Selection Sunday as a team and not making the tournament and waking up the next morning and finding out you're in the NIT, it's probably one of the worst feelings as a player. That's still in the back of our minds.

"I don't think guys are over it yet. What it'll take getting us over it is probably getting in the tournament. We were so close last year and let it slip out of our hands."

There are differences from last season, when the Vols received a bye to the quarterfinals and played the third game on Friday. Tennessee plays the second game of today's four-game slate against Mississippi State, which beat South Carolina 70-59 on Wednesday night.

The Bulldogs, who won four league games during the regular season, aren't near the caliber of the Ole Miss team that knocked Tennessee into the NIT last season, but losing to a team with an RPI well below 200 three days before the NCAA tournament selection committee picks the field of 68 teams would have the same fatal effect.

"I think our team is really well-motivated right now," said Jordan McRae, Tennessee's leading scorer. "I think this team knows we've got to do more than last year. Last year we still had a lot of immaturity in us, and I think this team has grown up a lot, so going into the SEC tournament this year, I think we know what we've got to do."

Most Tennessee players refer to the loss as a painful memory, but point guard Trae Golden said the Vols can look at it as a learning experience.

"You can look back now," he said, "and see the importance of experience and being able go through it and realizing what you need to do to win those games. We definitely can learn from it."

Winners of eight of their last nine games, the Vols enter the SEC tournament as the hottest team in the league, and their three best players are playing well.

McRae, who may feel snubbed by the selection of Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as SEC player of the year by the league's coaches, averaged 21.2 points and six rebounds and shot 52 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line during that stretch. Stokes was the only player in the league to average a double-double in conference games. Golden is averaging 16.5 points in his last nine games.

While Cuonzo Martin mentions last season's tourney loss to his team, the second-year coach doesn't dwell on it.

"That's in the wind," he said. "As a staff, we talk about it. But I don't go to the players [and say], 'If we did this that game ...'"

There's really no need for Martin to give any reminders.

"That was a tough game," Golden said. "Who knows, if we would have won that game, I think we'd have been in the NCAA tournament. You can't think about the past.

"It's over with, and there's nothing you can do, so we've just got to make sure we're ready come Thursday and ready to make a deep run."

Since Tennessee last won the SEC tournament in 1979, deep runs have been few and far between.

Only four times have the Vols won multiple games in the annual event. Two wins, including a Friday quarterfinal victory in the rubber match with Alabama, likely would make Selection Sunday a little less nervy for the Vols.

The Vols just want to avoid a repeat of last year's bracket unveiling.

"In the back of our minds, we think about how last year went down," Stokes said. "We were probably one of the hotter teams then, too, and ended up losing the first game. We just know we can't take it for granted or take any games for granted."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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