Fate in hands, fans in stands, Tennessee’s men’s basketball team will take the floor for a regular-season finale worthy of an impending packed house.
The Missouri Tigers, a talented bunch jostling for a double-bye in the SEC tournament and seeding lines in the NCAA tournament, is coming to Thompson-Boling Arena today (TV: ESPN, 4 p.m.). The Vols, sitting inside a delicate NCAA bubble and scanning SEC scenarios that could land them between third and seventh place in the standings, are anticipating a crowd exceeding the arena’s 21,678 seats.
“If (tip-off) is 4, let’s be there at 3,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Thursday. “Not only for the seniors, but to get that energy going early.”
On Senior Day for four UT players, the Vols (18-11, 10-7 SEC) will look to jump on a Missouri team that’s 2-7 in true road games. The Tigers (22-8, 11-6) boast talent all over the floor, with six players averaging double figures, but their road woes are well documented.
In its last outing, Missouri thumped Arkansas, 93-63, to assure an opportunity to finish as high as second in the SEC. Senior forward Laurence Bowers, the Tigers’ leading scorer at 14.4 points per game, led the charge against the Razorbacks with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while sophomore guard Jabari Brown, Mizzou’s leading scorer in SEC games with 15.1 per game, added 23.
The Vols rebounded from a loss at Georgia last Saturday to beat Auburn 82-75 on Wednesday. That win kept the UT as the final team in most mock NCAA tournament brackets, but the frailty of that position could be bolstered today.
Spurred by strong rebounding and crafty point guard Phil Pressey, the Tigers like to rebound, run and shoot. Coach Frank Haith’s team ranks sixth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage at 39.9 percent and eighth nationally in offensive efficiency.
Though the Vols don’t shy away from transition play, this isn’t the game to encourage it.
“(Missouri is) not a team you want to get into that kind of battle with,” said UT junior guard Jordan McRae. “It’s going to come down to getting (defensive) stops.”
Point guard Trae Golden likely is to draw the assignment of defending Pressey.
“He’s a pass-first guy, really quick in transition,” Golden said. “We have to keep him out of the lane and be sure we corral him.”
The Vols have relied heavily on a four-guard offensive in winning seven of their last eight. Missouri will test that scheme. Haith plays two traditional big men, Bowers and 6-9 center Alex Oriakhi, who combined to average 14.9 rebounds per game.
Golden suggested it might be Tennessee’s advantage, saying, “Instead of us changing our gameplan, they need to change their gameplan,” and it will be clear early if he’s right.
Before any of the action, Senior Day festivities will unfold for UT’s Skylar McBee, Kenny Hall, Dwight Miller and Rob Murphy.
McBee, a native of nearby Rutledge, enters the game with 590 career points scored in 127 career games. He is tied for the fourth-most games played in program history.
Hall has started 41 of 112 career games, averaging 4.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in his four-year career.
Miller, a transfer from Pittsburgh, averaged 2.4 points and 1.5 rebounds in 23 games last season, but has missed all of this season with a knee injury.
Murphy, a graduate of Brentwood Academy who transferred to UT from Lipscomb University, has appeared in five games as a walk-on.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.