Tennessee basketball’s victory over the Missouri Tigers was huge on Tuesday. Here’s why it’s the Volunteers’ most important of the 2018-2019 season so far.
When you’re No. 3 in the nation and a double-overtime loss away from being No. 1, you have a lot to celebrate. So Tennessee basketball should be happy with the position it’s in at 12-1 overall and 2-0 in the SEC.
They already have lots of great wins on the resume. The standout win is over the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who were No. 1 at the time. Beating the Louisville Cardinals, though, who are 10-4 and in the top 30 of the RPI, is also impressive.
Then there’s the thrilling victory on the road over the Memphis Tigers as the in-state rivalry was renewed, and finally, there’s the historic margin of victory with their 46-point win over the Georgia Bulldogs to open SEC play. But despite all of those thrilling wins, beating the Missouri Tigers on the road is the most impressive thing this team has done so far.
Cuonzo Martin has a solid NCAA Tournament contending team again. They are on the bubble. And they can be very frustrating with their defense. Amidst all of that, it was only Tennessee basketball’s second true road game of the year.
So there was a lot at stake Tuesday. The Vols were playing an SEC game against a bubble team on the road. They were the hunted, unlike being the hunters against Gonzaga. And they were truly on the road, unlike being against Gonzaga. Missouri is also better than Memphis right now, and they are a conference opponent.
By numerous measures, this was a crucial game, especially with the Auburn Tigers, Mississippi State Bulldogs, LSU Tigers and Kentucky Wildcats all contending to win the SEC. So it was huge for Tennessee basketball to be able to get that Tuesday night win.
What’s more, they were able to prove their mental toughness. It’s easy to not panic when teams like Gonzaga are threatening you. But for the second time this year, they were being threatened against a very good team when they were the favorite. That happened against Louisville as well.
And for the second time, they responded beautifully, especially with a strong second half. Rick Barnes has emphasized the importance of keeping this team on its heels, and his method is clearly working. The Vols actually trailed at a point in the first half. But they then went on a huge run and ended up dominating the game to win by 24 points DESPITE Grant Williams getting in foul trouble. That showed how deep and mentally tough this team is.
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These things revealed more about the Vols than anything. And what’s more is they are about to enter a very easy stretch. This Saturday, they have to face a rebuilding Florida Gators team on the road. UF is dangerous as well, but if UT can win that one, they return home to face the Arkansas Razorbacks and Alabama Crimson Tide. Both teams are good, but the Vols have them at home.
Simply put, Tennessee basketball is good enough to convincingly win the next three games. And once that happens, they should go on a dominant tear because they begin a seven-game stretch in which six of those are against teams outside of the Top 100 of the RPI. The other is Mizzou again, this time at home. Remember, they get a rebuilding West Virginia Mountaineers team at home in the SEC-Big 12 challenge.
As a result, the Vols could conceivably get to 22-1 and 11-0 in the SEC before Feb. 16. And what are the chances the Duke Blue Devils, Michigan Wolverines or Virginia Cavaliers go undefeated all the way to that point? They all have tough match-ups against other teams, so there’s a high probability Tennessee basketball gets to No. 1.
Then they close out the season with a tough stretch, first at Kentucky, and then at LSU and the upstart Ole Miss Rebels after hosting the Vanderbilt Commodores. Kentucky and Mississippi State at home followed by the Auburn Tigers on the road are the final three games of the regular season.
But before that, the schedule is very light. And the Mizzou win put them in a position to go on such a roll. It also showed how they can handle being hunted. That’s why, to this point, it’s the most important win of the season for Barnes and co.