published Friday, March 14th, 2014

Vols try to keep it going against South Carolina

Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin reacts in this file photo.
Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin reacts in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) scores on a reverse dunk while being fouled by Missouri guard Jabari Brown.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — There is no indication Tennessee is changing its formula heading into its Southeastern Conference basketball tournament opener against surprising South Carolina in Atlanta this afternoon.

Nor should the Volunteers, coming off three of their best performances of the season, change anything.

If Tennessee wants to reach the weekend of the SEC tournament for the first time under third-year coach Cuonzo Martin while solidifying its NCAA tournament case, the ball movement and stingy defense from the last three games likely will be the blueprint to follow.

"We just have to continue to do the things we've been doing," Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae said Wednesday.

After busing Wednesday night to Atlanta, the Vols held their morning shootaround at the Georgia Dome and practiced Thursday afternoon at Morehouse College in preparation for today's quarterfinal, scheduled to start roughly half an hour after the 1 p.m. Florida-Missouri game concludes.

Then the Vols will attempt to replicate what they've done the past two weeks on a more pressure-packed stage.

"I think the guys are loose," Martin said Wednesday. "They understand the task at hand and what they need to do in order for us to be successful. It's still one game at a time, and they need to be locked in."

In its last three games, Tennessee piled up 51 assists and assisted on 61 percent of its made shots, and Vanderbilt, Auburn and Missouri combined to average less than 46 points per game. None of those three teams -- a combined 22-32 in the SEC this season -- shot better than 41 percent in any one half.

It's clearly clicked at perhaps the last possible moment for the Vols, but their NCAA tournament chances likely would be undone by a loss today to a South Carolina team that finished 13th in the SEC this season.

The Vols' Rating Percentage Index began the week hovering just outside the top 40, and a neutral-site win, plus a potential matchup with Florida -- the SEC regular-season champion Gators are atop the polls and No. 2 in the RPI -- could bump Tennessee's all-important number into the top 40.

Compare that to Selection Sunday last year, when the Vols' RPI was 59 and they were excluded from the field.

"I try my best to stay away from what [ESPN bracket analyst] Joe Lunardi has been tweeting and saying, but it seems like I just can't avoid it," Vols All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said following the 72-45 thrashing of Missouri last Saturday.

"I'm always getting screenshots of what he's tweeting, but I don't feel like we'll have a bad game in the SEC tournament. Something tells me we'll keep this same energy and guys will continue to play unselfish. It's not like we're only doing this at home. We've done this on the road, too, so I don't feel like we'll have a bad showing."

Poor performances have doomed Martin's Vols to early exits the past two seasons.

In an overtime loss to Ole Miss two seasons ago, Tennessee shot 28 percent from the field. Last year, after beating Mississippi State in their opener, the Vols shot 32 percent and scored 48 points in a 10-point loss. Tennessee combined to jack up 57 3-pointers while making just 16 (28 percent) in those two losses.

"I just think the other team played better down the stretch," Martin said. "Probably didn't make a shot or didn't defend well enough to win the game. I'm not sure the particulars ... but just probably didn't do the things you need to do to win the game.

"For us, it's not settling for a lot of perimeter shots, even though some might present themselves," he added. "You've got to be able to drive the ball, get to the free-throw line and continue to pound the ball inside. We've had success doing that in the last four games. You've got to get inside with dribble penetration, post feeds, and get to the free-throw line."

With so much on the line, it's the plan Tennessee would be wise to follow again.

"I feel like maybe previously we would be itching for that one win, but now we want to test how well we've been playing," Stokes said. "We feel like when we played against Auburn, maybe we can't do it against Missouri. Now we do it against Missouri, we want to test how well we can do it in the SEC tournament.

"I don't think we're looking at one game. I think we're looking at the bigger picture."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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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