NASHVILLE – While a dozen some-odd teams make a last-ditch effort to impress the NCAA tournament committee over the next several days, there will be few games contested between true bubble teams.
The most prominent of which might take place on Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament when Tennessee takes on Alabama. In the regular season the teams split a pair of evenly-contested matchups decided by a combined four points. The Volunteers (20-11) advanced to the quarters with a 69-53 win on Thursday over Mississippi State.
The victory was punctuated by a 360-degree dunk from Tennessee guard Jordan McRae with 1:26 left. McRae, who led the Volunteers with 17 points, swiped the ball Bulldogs guard Craig Sword near halfcourt, took a couple dribbles and slammed it home for a 67-51 lead.
“I looked behind me and didn't see anybody so I decided to do it,” McRae said.
In Alabama's 68-65 win over Tennessee on Jan. 12, the Crimson Tide forced 16 turnovers including four steals by guard Andrew Steele. Tennessee guard Skylar McBee said his team needs to recognize when the traps are coming in Alabama's press to avoid careless passes.
“Usually teams that run a press trap in certain areas and do it all the time,” McBee said. “With Alabama they trap in different areas so you never know where it's coming.”
Two weeks later in the rematch, Tennessee committed only 10 turnovers in a 54-53 victory in Knoxville. The Volunteers also dominated the boards maintaining a 12-4 advantage on the offensive glass and a 33-17 margin overall.
“I always said when teams play you in a zone you should know where your shots are coming from, you should know where the box-outs are,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We spend time working on that against the zone, really rebounding the basketball and having the shooters ready to shoot. It's just a matter of being aggressive.”
After finishing a game ahead of Tennessee in the final SEC standings, Alabama has the advantage of an added day of rest. A win Friday, however, may be more crucial for the Crimson Tide than it is for the Volunteers. Although the Crimson Tide defeated Villanova and has a narrow loss to Cincinnati, Anthony Grant's team has the 84th ranked strength of schedule in Division I.
Tennessee's resume, meanwhile, includes wins over Wichita State, Massachusetts and Xavier, as well as close losses against Georgetown and Memphis. The Volunteers' strength of schedule is ranked 39th in the nation.
“I thought Tennessee was an NCAA tournament team before we played them and I definitely think that now,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “I don't think they needed that win to validate them being in the NCAA tournament.”
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