In the wake of their stunning win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Tennessee lost its edge.
The chip fell off its young shoulders. The signature cold-burn fire in their eyes expired. Positive press is unhealthy for young teams. Self-congratulations and complacency are deadly poison.
This is the reason coach Rick Barnes pushes his hardest after easy wins and splashy stat lines. You don’t reach 1000 wins (which lands him in the top-10 among active coaches) by taking victory laps.
For the stretch of games after Kentucky, Tennessee was the portrait of a young, complacent team. Normally evil defense was suddenly pedestrian and at times soft and confused.
The Vols ultimate weapon, quality depth, was suddenly just a bench waiting to be saved by its starters. And Tennessee’s usual rotating cast of stars? It faded into an anonymous group of guys showing bad shot selection and unusually lax execution. Concerns that Tennessee had peaked too early seemed validated after dropping losses to Alabama and Georgia. Auburn would cruise to a regular-season SEC title, in spite of Tennessee showing every reason it was the best team in the conference. The Vols simply had lost their legs.
Then, Undertaker.Gif-style, Tennessee rose from the mat.
Tennessee showed signs of their usual play in too-close wins over Florida and Ole Miss and then something magical happened. The 2018 Tennessee Volunteers found their happy thought. With Auburn floundering under the weight of unexpected success and the serious distraction of the FBI glaring at its coach, the Vols were one more Auburn loss from an opportunity to control their own regular season destiny.
And then there they were, in the form of a DEVASTATING win over Mississippi State, who had lost only once at home all year. The Vols’ three ingredients to success we’re back in vivid ways. Defense choked the Bulldogs out in the homestretch, every player who got on the floor contributed points and quality minutes. And when Tennessee needed a star, Admiral Schofield came alive like a warrior poet. Already Tennessee’s emotional leader, Schofield dominated on both ends, bolstered by MSU prioritizing Grant Williams on defense.
And after beating MSU 76-54, Tennessee (22-7, 12-5 SEC) got what it needed. Arkansas beat Auburn easily, setting up a final regular-season Saturday for the ages. If Tennessee wins, they claim an SEC Co-Championship, no matter what. But should Auburn conclude their downward spiral with a loss at home to flawed-but-scrappy South Carolina, Tennessee will be crowned the outright regular season champions of the SEC.
If you don’t know: these are rare, excellent moments for Tennessee Basketball. Saturday’s home game against Georgia (6pm SEC Network) is sold out and should be one of the wildest environments in program history, regardless. If Auburn loses its 2pm game, bring a helmet and earplugs to TBA. No, really.