No. 8 Tennessee sets sights on SEC tourney, Mississippi State

The Associated Press

Tennessee certainly is well-rested for its first Southeastern Conference tournament game after receiving a double-bye. Now come the expectations.

And the high expectations for the No. 8-ranked Volunteers concern coach Rick Barnes more than the inactivity entering Friday's quarterfinal matchup with Mississippi State at Nashville, Tenn.

"There's a lot going on this year with a lot of outside chatter and noise," Barnes told reporters recently, "and you just hope that (his players) can eliminate all that and stay focused on the task at hand."

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Tennessee (27-4) spent four weeks at No. 1 this season and is seeded third in the SEC tourney. The NCAA Tournament is a guarantee but the Volunteers are aiming to do something the school hasn't done since 1979:

Win the SEC tournament title.

"I want it so badly," junior forward Grant Williams said during a news conference. "It is something that I have always wanted -- 1979, I have had that date in my head. That is the last time we won it.

"It's something that would mean a lot to me."

LSU is the top-seeded team and Kentucky is second. The Volunteers perhaps have more motivation this weekend than those two programs due to the longstanding drought.

Barnes would like to see it end, too.

"I think anytime you play, you want to win a title -- you want to win championships," Barnes said. "I don't think there's any question any team wants to do that. When it's said and done, they're not easy to come by."

First Tennessee will have to get by sixth-seeded Mississippi State, which was immensely sharp during Thursday's 80-54 trouncing of Texas A&M in a second-round matchup.

The Bulldogs (23-9) never trailed in the contest and junior guard Lamar Peters led the way by scoring 15 points on five 3-pointers.

"Playing Tennessee, we know it is going to be a physical game," Peters said in the postgame news conference. "Hands down, the most physical team in the SEC. We know they're going to bring it."

The two teams met 10 days ago in Knoxville and it wasn't much fun for Mississippi State.

The Volunteers shut down the Bulldogs and limited Mississippi State to 33.3-percent shooting while forcing 17 turnovers.

Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, the third-leading scorer in Bulldogs' history with 1,968 points, had more turnovers (eight) than points (seven on 3-of-12 shooting).

Senior guard Admiral Schofield led the way for Tennessee, making three 3-pointers and scoring 18 points

"They're a great team," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said of Tennessee after the win over Texas A&M. "They're a team that has a chance to win the national championship, to be a Final Four team. They've been incredibly impressive all year.

"Because they've been so good all year, they experienced the same thing that Kentucky experiences every night, which everybody is up for them wanting to bring their 'A' game. You look at their body of work, their schedule. They've been phenomenal."

The Volunteers dropped their regular-season finale to Auburn 84-80 last Saturday. They haven't dropped consecutive games all season and Barnes feels his players want to play three games in three days to chase that elusive title.

"You just hope your guys, again, like any other game, are locked in knowing that it is a tournament," Barnes said. "If you want to continue to play in the tournament, you have to win. But it will always get back to doing what you've done when you're playing your best basketball.

"Plain and simple -- you have to stay together, stay focused on the game plan, not letting the emotion of the game overwhelm you."

--Field Level Media

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