Grinding 'em out

Pounding out a 25-point victory helps a team in the national polls but grinding out a five-point victory helps a team in the national tournament.

Very few NCAA Tournament games are played at the greyhound pace Tennessee prefers. Most are played at a snail's pace, with each possession proving critical and the outcome very much in doubt entering the final minute.

These games are more chess match than horse race, more gut test than talent display. That being the case, Tennessee should be primed for postseason play because the Vols have been grinding out a lot of gut-test victories lately.

Heading into tonight's 9 o'clock tipoff at Florida, the Vols have seen nine of their last 13 games decided by seven points or less.

"I think it prepares us for the NCAA Tournament," sophomore forward Tyler Smith said recently. "You're not going to get a game where you're going to run up and down the court every time. You're going to have to use your halfcourt offense some, and this prepares us for that."

The fact Tennessee won low-scoring games against LSU (47-45), Memphis (66-62) and Kentucky (63-60) in recent weeks suggests the Vols can adapt to the type of defensive-minded battles they'll be playing once The Big Dance begins.

"We're improving," Smith said. "At the beginning of the year I don't believe we could've won close games being in the 60s. But our team is growing – learning how to win the close games and also the 80-point games."

Indeed. Of the afore-mentioned nine games decided by seven points or less, Tennessee prevailed in seven of them. The stretch began Jan. 19, when the Vols beat Ohio State 74-69. Since then they have disposed of Alabama (93-86), Mississippi State (76-71), LSU (47-45), Georgia (74-71), Memphis (66-62) and Kentucky (63-60). The only losses during this span were a 72-66 squeaker at Kentucky and a 72-69 heart-breaker at Vanderbilt. The only comfortable wins during the streak were an 85-69 defeat of Georgia, a 104-82 trouncing of Florida and a 93-71 pasting of Arkansas.

Playing tight games against tough teams may be hard on the nerves but it's great on the RPI. Facing so many quality foes should help the Vols land a No. 1 seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

"It's been a tough schedule, and I think the (selection) committee will look at that," Smith said. "Preparing for (NCAA) games through the SEC (schedule) is great."

Senior guard Chris Lofton agrees. He believes playing three hard-fought games (Memphis, Vanderbilt, Kentucky) in a span of eight days will serve the Vols very well when The Dance begins.

"We know we're going to have hard games in the Tournament ... play, off day, then play again," he said. "This stretch we've been through – Memphis, Vandy and Kentucky – it can't really get any harder than that."

While they would welcome a few more 20-point blowouts, Tennessee's players understand that a five-point nail-biter may be more beneficial in the long run.

Lofton said it best: "I think playing 'em now will get us ready for the postseason."

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