NASHVILLE — The easiest order of business is out of the way.
Now Tennessee's basketball team can get to perhaps the most important item on its Southeastern Conference tournament agenda.
In a game they could not afford to lose in chasing an NCAA tournament bid, the Volunteers cruised past Mississippi State on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena, the 69-53 victory setting up a quarterfinal showdown with Alabama at 3:30 p.m. EDT today.
"We played a hard-fought game," UT's Jordan McRae said after scoring 17 points against the Bulldogs, "and it was good to get that game under your belt knowing that tomorrow's going to be somewhat the same thing."
Though they dispatched Mississippi State -- a spright, undermanned bunch playing with just eight healthy players under first-year coach Rick Ray -- without much drama, the Vols (20-11) know a tougher fight awaits them. Tennessee and Alabama (19-11) split the two regular-season meetings, with each team winning at home. The combined margin of victory was four points.
"They could have gone either way," Vols point guard Trae Golden said.
"It's two tough teams," Josh Richardson added, "and both have a lot of athleticism, so it's usually an up-and-down game. Both have a lot of length that can disrupt the ball and passing lanes. It's going to be a battle."
After runs of 12-0 and 14-2 helped Tennessee build a 19-point first-half lead that remained 35-19 at halftime, the Vols coasted in the second half against Mississippi State, which won three of its past four games after an ugly 13-game losing skid and beat South Carolina in the first round Wednesday night.
Tennessee committed 10 turnovers and allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 42 percent after a 26-percent first half. Mississippi State was within nine points at the 4:42 mark before a four-point trip -- McRae's running bank shot and Jarnell Stokes' putback of his teammate's miss on the ensuing free throw -- replenished the lead.
"There's the tendency to have a mental slip when you get big leads," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I didn't think Jarnell was posting strong in spurts. We were careless with the basketball.
"[Mississippi State] stayed aggressive."
Aside from Armani Moore's alley-oop from McRae -- Tennessee's second such play in three games -- and McRae's highlight-reel 360-degree dunk after a steal, the Vols played a second half they likely won't spend much time reviewing.
Instead, all the focus now shifts to the meeting with the Crimson Tide, and while a loss may not knock the Vols out of an NCAA tournament at-large bid, a win could solidify their spot.
Martin and his players insisted Thursday that the team that split with Alabama in January is better now.
"It starts with Jarnell Stokes," Martin said. "Trae is also playing at the level we expect Trae to -- he's dribbling the ball and making plays, and he's doing a better job defending. Josh is becoming is good two-way player.
"We changed our lineup. We're four guards for the most part. I think what it does more than anything, it gives Jarnell a chance to score around the rim, to make plays, to have spacing. You've got guys that can make shots and make plays."
Golden's play may be the biggest difference. He played less than 25 minutes in each Alabama game, made just three of his 13 shots and scored only 11 points. Alabama guards Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey combined to score 59 points in two games against Tennessee.
After Thursday's 15-point performance, Golden is averaging 16.4 points in his last 10 games.
"I think when they played us both times, I wasn't playing my best," he said. "I wasn't as aggressive, and I was kind of going through whatever I was going through. Now I'm just ready to play tomorrow and I'm focused on that."
With a chance at possibly wrapping up an NCAA tournament bid, Tennessee needs him to be.
"We're way different," said McRae, the Vols' constant this season. "We have a real point guard now in Trae, and he's doing a good job of really leading our team. For us to win, that's what we need him to do.
"We know it's a big game."
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 ...