No. 12 Tennessee will be playing for one of the four Southeastern Conference tournament byes when it hosts Arkansas on Tuesday night in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Volunteers (21-8, 10-6 SEC) need wins over the Razorbacks (19-10, 8-8) and at Auburn in their last two games to avoid falling into a tiebreaker scenario. Three teams — Auburn, Missouri, Vanderbilt — are a game behind them in the standings.
An 85-45 rout of South Carolina on Saturday not only kept the Vols alone in fourth place but also marked the welcome return of veteran guard Josiah-Jordan James to the lineup.
James missed four games this month with a sprained ankle but came off the bench and scored a team-high 18 points to lead five double-figure scorers in the blowout. Overall, James has missed 12 games to injuries this season. The Vols were 8-4 in those games but only 1-3 in the last four.
“His presence has such a major impact on the team because he’s in so many big opportunities and big-game situations,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think his presence takes a lot of pressure off guys. He gives teammates assist and comfort.”
For the season, James has averaged 10.0 points a game. Santiago Vescovi (12.3), Zakai Zeigler (11.0), and Olivier Nkamhoua (10.6) also average in double figures.
The balance along with a stick-together attitude helped the Vols weather a 2-5 February slump that included a pair of buzzer-beating 3-pointers in losses to Vanderbilt and Missouri, and double-digit setbacks at Florida and Kentucky.
“Every team in the country has its ups and downs, but I would just say these guys embraced each other in a great way,” Barnes said. “At no point in time during this have they not gone into practice hard, not been locked in in what we’re trying to do.”
The Razorbacks are looking to bounce back from Saturday’s disappointing 86-83 loss at No. 2 Alabama. They led by double digits in the first half, trailed by double digits in the second, and lost a chance to send the game to overtime on a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We’ve got to get back,” coach Eric Musselman said. “A quick turnaround, obviously, for Tennessee.”
Like the Vols, the Hogs also have welcomed back a key player. Freshman Nick Smith missed 19 games while dealing with knee issues but returned Feb. 11 against Mississippi State. He played 17 minutes in a loss to the Bulldogs and only four minutes in a loss to Texas A&M, but logged 32 and 29, respectively, in big wins over Florida and Georgia.
He played all but two seconds of the loss at Alabama and scored 24 points to match the Tide’s Brandon Miller for high-scoring honors. Davonte Davis (21) and Ricky Council IV (20) also had big games for the Razorbacks, but it wasn’t enough.
“We only have two games left to play in the regular season,” Musselman said, “and we’ve got to continue to try to get better.”
Alone in eighth place in the SEC, the Hogs host No. 23 Kentucky in their regular-season finale on Saturday.
–Field Level Media