After last week’s No. 1 ranking proved to be just a temporary reward, Tennessee hopes this week ends with something more permanent: its first outright SEC title in 41 years.
The fourth-ranked Volunteers can clinch at least a share of the league title with a win on Wednesday at Florida, the reigning SEC and national champions who are now desperate to improve their chances of making the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee briefly held the No. 1 national ranking last week after winning at previously undefeated and top-ranked Memphis, but the Vols (26-3, 12-2) predictably dropped to No. 4 this week after they lost 72-69 at then-No. 18 Vanderbilt last Tuesday.
But after fending off Kentucky 63-60 on Sunday, Tennessee still holds a two-game lead over the Wildcats in the SEC East and a one-game lead over Mississippi State in the overall conference standings with two games to play.
“Altogether, I think it was a great week for us, even though we lost our No. 1 spot,” Tennessee forward Tyler Smith said. “We’re still happy with where we’re at.”
The Volunteers can clinch the outright SEC East title with a win, and can secure the outright regular season league championship with a win and a Mississippi State loss at Vanderbilt. The Vols close the season at home against South Carolina on Sunday.
Tennessee won shared SEC titles in 1972, 1977, 1982 and 2000, but hasn’t had a championship to itself since 1966-67. A win against Florida would also set a new school record for victories in a season, as the Vols have already tied the 1999-2000 team, which finished 26-7.
That’s only because they were able to hang on against Kentucky, which fought back from a seven-point halftime deficit and nearly snapped what had been a 30-game home winning streak for the Vols. But Tyler Smith had 15 points and Chris Lofton added 14, including a key 3-pointer late, as the Vols avoided their first back-to-back losses of the season.
“We showed enough poise down the stretch to win,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said
Tennessee had won five straight on the road before losing at Vanderbilt, but the Vols have shot just 36.3 percent from the field in their past four road games.
They lost 94-78 in Gainesville last season, but they played that game without Lofton, who was out with an ankle injury.
Tennessee is 5-1 overall and 2-0 on the road against Florida with Lofton in the lineup. The senior has averaged 20.3 points on 53.4 percent shooting against the Gators in his career.
He had 26 points on 6-of-11 3-point shooting in the Vols’ 104-82 win over Florida in Knoxville on Feb. 5. Tyler Smith and JaJuan Smith each added 23 points in that game.
That was part of a difficult February for Florida (21-8, 8-6), which entered the month at 18-3 but has since lost five of eight to harm its resume for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Gators have made the tournament the last nine seasons, but lost their top six scorers from back-to-back national championship teams.
The Gators lost 68-59 at home to Mississippi State on Saturday, as they shot just 36.1 percent from the field. Sophomore Marreese Speights had 20 points and 10 rebounds for his third straight double-double, but he couldn’t prevent Florida from losing at home for the second time in three games after winning nine straight in Gainesville.
Florida’s situation is even more difficult considering the Gators play at Kentucky in their regular season finale on Sunday.
“We need at least one of them,” Florida forward Adam Allen said. “If we lose both these games, it’s going to be really hard to get into the tournament. I don’t see how we can do it if we lose both of them.”