SEC tournament notebook: Alabama and Tennessee take different paths to semifinals

 Blake Lovell   in Basketball

(Southeastern Conference)

The SEC Tournament semifinal matchup between Alabama and Tennessee will be about more than just two teams playing good basketball.

It'll also be a battle of two teams that entered the season with championship aspirations.

Nearly everyone was on the Vols' bandwagon before the season started. Back in November, the SEC media picked them to win the regular season title. Fast forward several months later, and Rick Barnes' team couldn't quite meet those expectations.

However, the Crimson Tide could. Alabama was picked fifth in the preseason, and it used that as motivation to reel off an incredible 16-2 campaign in league play.

But no matter how both got to this point, what we do know is that they seem to be hitting their stride at the right time.

For the Tide, a dominant 85-48 victory against Mississippi State on Friday was an example of what Nate Oats' squad is capable of. And it also erased any doubts about whether Alabama came to Nashville with anything other than hoisting more hardware on its mind.

"I think we answered the questions about whether our guys can come out ready to play at 11:00 tip," Oats said after the game. "Told them whatever they did do, get ready for that one, try to repeat tomorrow. It was nice to get the win. The fact Mississippi State was able to beat Kentucky kind of made our guys wake up. Plus they played us really tough two games in a row. I thought it was close all the way to the end both times we played these guys.

"I think our guys really locked in. Really goes to the senior leadership making sure the guys are locked in. Petty told me they were going to be locked in. Obviously, him and Herb, Bruner, just three seniors that start along with Shack being with us as long as he has, really made sure everybody was locked in."

Of course, the 37-point win wasn't without its concerns. Star freshman Josh Primo exited with a knee injury, and the Tide will wait to see his availability for the matchup with the Vols.

Primo has played an important role in Alabama's rotation this season, averaging 8.1 points and 3.4 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game.

He also played a key role in the Tide's victory in Knoxville during the regular season. Alabama earned an 81-73 win at Tennessee all the way back on Jan. 2, with Primo notching 11 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes of action.

However, the Vols have their own injury issues. 

John Fulkerson took an elbow to the head from Florida's Omar Payne, and it didn't exactly look good. Fulkerson left the game and did not return, with Barnes noting that he doesn't expect the senior center to be available for Saturday's game.

"They did take him to the hospital just for observation," Barnes said. "I think it was more for his eye than anything else. Tomorrow, I don't know right now if we could say we can count on him. Again, we'll wait and see. My gut feeling, he took two pretty good licks right there and I'd be surprised if he is available."

As for Tennessee's performance in the 78-66 win against Florida? It didn't come easy with Tre Mann putting up an incredible 30-point performance for the Gators, but it did come close to resembling the Tennessee team everyone expected to see this season. 

The Vols were crisper offensively, and one stat that proved it was making 22 assists on 28 made field goals. Here's another that's even more important for Barnes' group moving forward: Tennessee had seven players score between 7 and 14 points. 

That's the type of balance it needs if it wants to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

But first, it's about trying to contain one of the nation's most explosive offenses and best defenses with Alabama. Barnes recalled what stood out from his team's loss to the Tide earlier in the season:

"It got away from us," he said. "We didn't handle it very well. That was really one of the first games I thought where we were down and didn't know quite how to respond. I think they've gotten better. I'd like to think that we've gotten better. We're going to need everybody. If Fulkerson is not available, we're going to need more guys to step up and help us.

"We're going to have to defend a team, I think one of you guys mentioned to Santi, about threes, getting to the rim. Again, we're going to have to play good offense ourselves, take care of the basketball, not have those on-ball turnovers that lead to easy baskets."

Yves Pons, who set a program record and tied an SEC Tournament record with nine blocks in the win over the Gators, also understands the challenges of facing the league's top team.

"I think it's a good challenge," Pons said. "Really good team. They beat us the first time. We have to take revenge. I can't wait to play tomorrow. We'll be ready for them." 

If Tennessee is indeed ready, it figures to be a must-see affair between the team that everyone thought would be at the top and the top that actually made it to the top.

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