What does the SEC Tournament really mean to Tennessee?

Tribune News Service • Mar 9, 2018 at 10:30 AM

KNOXVILLE -- As Tennessee prepares to begin the postseason Friday night in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament, the No. 13 Volunteers are just three wins away from another championship.

The question is how long do the Vols really want to stay in St. Louis?

"I don't know of any team that doesn't want to win its conference tournament," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Monday. "I don't know of any team that doesn't want to go out and win every game."

However, as a veteran of 24 NCAA Tournaments either as an assistant or head coach, Barnes knows the potential downside to the expenditure of energy and time that comes with playing consecutive days in pursuit of winning a conference tournament that ends on NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday.

"You find out where you're seeded, then you've got to get back on the plane, get home that night, late Sunday night, and then you've got to turn around and maybe travel on Tuesday and have to play on Thursday," Barnes said. "I think that's tough."

The Vols found a rhythm in conference play, going 23-7 (13-5 SEC) to win a share of the SEC regular season championship. Now they are somewhat beholden to the whims of the postseason.

If Tennessee loses Friday night's contest and is slotted for a Friday game in the NCAA Tournament next week, it would go a full week between games.

Or, the Vols could wind up in the scenario that Barnes is wary of, with an opportunity to win the conference tournament on Sunday afternoon followed by a Thursday game in the Big Dance in a distant location.

Barnes experienced that chain of events during his final year coaching at Providence in 1994, when the Friars won the Big East Tournament but were bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"But the fact of the matter is all you can do is control the situation, how it happens, and hope that your team can be focused and just give it everything they have," Barnes said, "and not let the outside noise and everything that comes into this time of year take away from what they have to do to be focused."

With the Vols widely projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament entering the SEC Tournament, there is clearly more at stake for other teams in this weekend's event at the Scottrade Center. Alabama, for example, was considered among the "first four out" of the NCAA Tournament by ESPN's Joe Lunardi on Thursday.

A strong showing in the SEC Tournament could boost the Crimson Tide's profile and earn them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee's Selection Sunday fate is more secure, but playing well this weekend could still provide some benefit for the Vols. For one thing, the conference tournament could give Barnes some time to experiment with defenses. He suggested Tennessee might bust out its rarely used zone defense in practice this week, and perhaps the Vols could use the a game or two -- or three -- to refine that look before trotting it out in the do-or-die environment of the NCAA Tournament.

A strong showing in the conference tournament could also solidify Tennessee's status as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament or earn the Vols consideration for a No. 2 seed.

After Tennessee locked up the SEC co-regular season championship with a win over Georgia last Saturday, Barnes told the team, "this is good, but it can be better."

First up, the SEC Tournament.

"There's another championship that can be won," Barnes said. "There's a way you can improve your seeding. That doesn't just apply to us. That applies to every team in the league."

Contact David Cobb of the Chattanooga Free Press at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.

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