NASHVILLE — Tennessee doesn’t begrudge Alabama its extra bye before today’s SEC tournament quarterfinal match-up.
It seemed to prefer a test to rest after beating undermanned Mississippi State 69-53 Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.
“I’m really glad we got to play,” said Jordan McRae, who had 17 points in the Vols’ 20th victory of the season. “It helps you get a feel for the court and the atmosphere — little things like that.”
Little things like that will loom large today. Two UT-Alabama regular-season games have established that much.
Alabama won in Tuscaloosa by three points and UT won in Knoxville by one.
Now, you have them both playing for NCAA tournament stakes on a neutral site that might seem less neutral to the Vols, and not just because of their greater fan support.
The victory over the injury-ravaged Bulldogs, who had only eight available players, hardly qualified as an aesthetic success. But it at least acclimated the Vols to the arena’s nuances, most notably the unforgiving rims.
“Shooting is about feel and being comfortable,” UT senior guard Skylar McBee said. “So the more shots in the gym, the more comfortable you feel.
“This is a place they don’t use as a basketball arena a lot, so the rims are real stiff. So you get a feel of it.”
And learn not to be distracted by unexpected results.
“We had three or four balls go all the way in and come out,” said McBee, who made three of eight 3-pointers but thought he had a fourth upon release.
He doesn’t dismiss the advantage of fresh legs. But it’s not as though Tennessee was painfully overextended against the Bulldogs, who were already down by 16 points at halftime and never pulled closer than nine points in the second half on the way to their 22nd loss of the season.
“Anytime you play a game, there will be a lull in your legs the next game,” McBee said before repeating himself. “But it’s nice to get a feel for this gym.”
The venue won’t be the only prior experience in UT’s favor against the Tide. The Vols regard their preciously thin win over Alabama as a turning point in their season.
Until then, the theme had been: tight game, tough postgame. Tennessee had lost by one point to Virginia as well as to Alabama.
“(The second Alabama game) finally got us over the hump of winning close games,” Jarnell Stokes said. “Around that time, we started pulling out close games.
“I think that really gave us a lot of confidence.”
A lineup change might help, too. UT now starts four guards with Stokes. That could be a plus against Alabama’s full-court pressure, which proved decisive in their first meeting.
Tennessee vs Mississippi State, March 14, 2013
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin is counting on another edge.
“We expect to see a lot of orange,” he said twice.
More fans, more confidence and more court awareness might add up in a game that should be as tight as the rims.