More March magic for Vols?

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NASHVILLE – No one is expecting Tennessee’s basketball team to switch from mediocre to masterful this March. Then again, no one was expecting it to happen last March.

But it did.

Stumbling along at 17-11 heading into March, the 2013-14 Vols suddenly caught fire. They crushed Vanderbilt 76-38, blasted Auburn 82-54, then hammered Missouri 72-45 to conclude the regular season. They clipped South Caroling 59-44 in their SEC Tournament opener before losing 54-49 to top-ranked Florida. Squeaking into the NCAA Tournament via a play-in game, they beat Iowa in overtime, then mauled UMass (86-67) and Mercer (83-63) to reach the Sweet 16.

Playing as well as anyone in college basketball, Tennessee might have made the Elite Eight if not for a controversial charging call on Jarnell Stokes in the final seconds of a 73-71 Sweet 16 loss to Michigan.

So, what enabled the 2013-14 Vols to dramatically elevate their play last March?

“I think we started guarding better,” senior point guard Josh Richardson told InsideTennessee. “We started locking people up, holding people to 40-some points a game. I think if we can do that this year we’d give ourselves a chance.”

Richardson played a key role in the March transformation last spring. Entering The Dance averaging just over 9.0 points per game, he erupted for 17 points against Iowa, 15 versus UMass, 26 against Mercer and 19 versus Michigan.

When asked afterward what sparked his big finish, Richardson replied: “If you lose you go home, and I didn’t want to go home.”

The stakes are even higher tonight at Bridgestone Arena, facing Vanderbilt in Round 2 of the 2015 SEC Tournament. If Tennessee loses Richardson’s college career is finished. The Vols are 15-15 after dropping 10 of their last 13 games but they insist that means nothing.

“You never know what can happen in March,” Richardson said. “The SEC Tournament’s a place where teams can come out of nowhere and win. If we go in there with the right mindset, we should be able to get a couple (of wins).”

Sophomore guard Robert Hubbs agrees wholeheartedly.

“We’ve got a brand new season starting Thursday,” he told InsideTennessee. “We can’t do nothing but pick our heads up and go play ball.”

Asked if the postseason offers a fresh start, Hubbs nodded emphatically.

“Definitely,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to make some noise. It’s a new life in the postseason. It’s 0-0 basically for everybody.”

Hubbs was recovering from shoulder surgery and did not play during Tennessee’s March surge a year ago. He watched it closely, however, and says the key was “Just playing together, trusting each other.”

Nothing brings the Vols together like facing heated rival Vanderbilt. The last meeting Feb. 26 in Knoxville ended on a controversial note when Commodore freshman Wade Baldwin got in the face of Vol junior Armani Moore as he was leaving the floor, clapping his hands and grinning in a taunting manner. Vandy coach Kevin Stallings promptly went off on Baldwin – the profane tirade being splashed by the national media for several days.

Whether that incident has any impact on tonight’s rematch remains to be seen. At least one Vol thinks the episode was blown way out of proportion.

“You know how that happens: Some little stuff happens and everybody wants to blow it up,” Richardson said. “Wade’s a good player. Armani’s a good player. I’m a good player. You know, good players are competitive, get to jawing sometimes. It happens.”

GAME NOTES: Tyndall typically wears an orange blazer for games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt but decided to go with a traditional suit for this Vandy game since it is on a “neutral site.” … Tonight’s tipoff is set for 6 o'clock Central (7 Eastern)…. No. 7 seed Vanderbilt brings a 19-12 record into the game, having won eight of its last 10 outings. No. 10 seed Tennessee is 15-15, having lost 10 of its last 13…. Josh Richardson averaged 23.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists versus the Commodores this season…. The Vols are 7-1 against Vanderbilt in all-time SEC Tournament play…. Tennessee stands 62-50 (.554) in 54 all-time SEC Tournament appearances but 27-35 since the tournament was revived 36 years ago. The Vols have not won the event since Don DeVoe’s debut season of 1978-79…. Tennessee stands 8-6 in SEC Tournament games at Nashville, 4-4 in games played at Bridgestone Arena…. Vanderbilt and Tennessee split the regular-season meetings – the Vols prevailing 76-73 in overtime at Nashville and the Commodores winning 73-65 in the Feb. 26 rematch at Knoxville…. Vandy made its final 13 field-goal attempts in the game at Knoxville and shot 84.2 percent (16 of 19) for the second half. Tennessee lost despite dominating the backboards 37-19 and pulling down 19 offensive rebounds to Vanderbilt’s 1…. Tonight’s winner faces No. 2 seed Arkansas Friday at 6 Central (7 Eastern)…. Tournament games will be televised by the SEC Network through Friday’s quarterfinal play. Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s title game will be aired by ESPN.

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