Tennessee’s roller-coaster campaign has included the arrest and suspension of four players, followed by a win over the nation’s top team less than two weeks later.
But the 15th-ranked Volunteers could be peaking at just the right time, and they’ll hope to begin the postseason with a fourth straight victory as they face LSU in an opening-round SEC Tournament game Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.
The New Year’s Day arrests of Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams and Melvin Goins marred Tennessee’s season, and left the Vols with just six scholarship players for an extended stretch.
But Tennessee (23-7) beat then-No. 1 Kansas while short-handed on Jan. 10, and all of the suspended players except Smith have returned to help the team play some of their best basketball lately.
“I look back at all the things that we’ve gone through,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said, “and I admire their resiliency and the way they’ve grounded out.
“I think right now we’re comfortable where we are. We’ve been back for a while. We’ve been together. It’s been a long time since the roster’s had the adjustments. So this is who we are.”
If that’s true, the Vols are a very good team. They beat second-ranked Kentucky 74-65 on Feb. 27, followed by a home win over Arkansas before closing out the regular season Saturday with a 75-59 win at Mississippi State.
During the winning streak, Tennessee is shooting 50.6 percent while holding opponents to 36.6 percent.
“Their length and their athleticism puts them in situations where they can really guard you,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “Then they’re making shots. They appear to be in a really, really good rhythm.”
The Vols have more SEC wins in their recent run than Johnson’s club had all season.
After starting their conference slate with 12 straight losses, the Tigers (11-19) won two of their last four SEC games, including a 50-48 victory over Georgia on Saturday.
But they still finished last in the SEC West, struggling to replace 2008-09 conference player of the year Marcus Thornton. LSU ranks at the bottom of the league in many offensive categories, including scoring (61.9 points per game) and field goal percentage (40.1).
The Vols, however, will be wary of LSU, which also finished last in its division in 2007 but went on to beat then-No. 22 Tennessee 76-67 in overtime in the first round of the SEC tournament.
“We just continue to go out there and fight no matter what the situation,” said LSU senior Tasmin Mitchell, who leads the team with 17.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
The Tigers also played then-No. 14 Tennessee tough on Feb. 4 before falling 59-54 in Baton Rouge, and Pearl said he’s not worried about his team looking forward to what would be a quarterfinal matchup with Mississippi on Friday.
“We’ve just got to come out and be ready to play against those guys,” Tennessee senior Wayne Chism said.
Tennessee is just 3-4 in the SEC tournament under Pearl, although it reached the final last season before losing 64-61 to Mississippi State. The Vols are looking for their first SEC title since 1979.
They would have to win an extra game to get it done this season because they finished third in the SEC East. The top two teams in each division get byes to the quarterfinals
That advantage went to Ole Miss and Mississippi State - the top two clubs in the West - even though each finished 9-7 in the SEC. Tennessee went 11-5.