Volunteers pick right time to start playing good basketball
Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 7:00 pm
By BETH RUCKER
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tenne-ssee is playing its best basketball of the season and is poised to close out the regular season on a run.
Five of the Volunteers’ last six games are against teams whose records in the Southeastern Conference are the same as theirs or worse.
“I look at the SEC standings all the time because that’s most important for us and where we’re going,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “As a coach, as long as you’re making progress then things eventually fall in place.”
The Vols (13-12, 5-5) were picked to finish 11th in the SEC but are currently in a four-way tie for fifth place, even after playing five games against ranked opponents last month.
In the next week, Tennessee will face the three teams it’s currently tied with: Arkansas (17-8, 5-5) at home tonight, followed by a trip to Alabama on Saturday and then Mississippi at home on Feb. 22.
Tennessee is heading into the stretch on a three-game winning streak that included their first road win, a 75-70 victory at Florida on Saturday that helped drop the Gators from No. 8 to No. 14 in the AP Top 25. Martin said the game was the Vols’ most complete effort of the season, with a strong shooting performance complementing a tough defensive attack.
“You always want to get better later — it’s nice to be good at the beginning as well — but our guys certainly are making strides at getting better, playing with a level of confidence, playing with each other,” Martin said.
With a run at the end of the season, a seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament isn’t completely out of the question for Tennessee. Though an NIT bid is more likely, Martin thinks a strong showing in the SEC, which includes No. 1 Kentucky, should be enough to attract the attention of the NCAA selection committee.
“I don’t really talk to them about it but if you win your next five, I don’t think there’s any question,” he said. “But you never know, and once again there’s no set criteria to say, ‘this, this, this.’ You just have to do your job and put in work, and when Selection Sunday comes if you’re part of it, then you’re part of it.”
Tennessee has played especially well at home during conference play, with its only loss coming at the hands of Kentucky. The Vols are holding foes to 57.8 points per game at home during SEC play and have a plus-10.2 scoring margin in games at home.
That’s not exactly what the Razorbacks want to hear. While the Hogs are undefeated on their own home court, they’ve lost all seven of their road games this season, and coach Mike Anderson knows Knoxville won’t be an easy place to reverse that trend.
“I’ll tell you what, Tennessee has been playing some pretty impressive basketball,” Anderson said. “They lost some games early on, but they play tough defense. They get in the passing lanes. They really attacked the glass on Florida. They play with a toughness that you have to have on the road. That’s what we’re looking for: toughness throughout the 40 minutes. And get off to a good start. That’s going to be a big key for our team.”
Like the Vols, Arkansas has relied on a stingy defense this season. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in 3-point field-goal defense (26.3 percent), steals per game (9.3) and turnover margin (plus-4) thanks to their press.
“For those guys, it’s constant,” Martin said. “It’s from start to finish. It’s not a case of, ‘Well, let’s press a couple of possessions and see how they handle it.’ They’re pressing the whole game. They will run and jump at you. They won’t allow you to let up, so you have to really do a good job of attacking the rim under control.”
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this story.
Published in The Messenger 2.15.12