Too fresh for foes

Championships don't always go to the finest team. Sometimes they go to the freshest team. That bodes well for the Tennessee Vols in this weekend's SEC Tournament.

The Vols use nine or 10 players in every game, meaning no one is on the floor long enough to get leg-weary. As a result, they almost invariably outscore their opponent in the closing minutes.

Consider their five most recent outings:

- Feb. 23: UT outscored top-ranked and previously unbeaten Memphis 8-1 over the final 2:11, turning a 61-58 deficit into a 66-62 win.

- Feb. 26: UT outscored home-standing Vanderbilt 9-4 over the final 3:00, narrowing a 68-60 deficit to 72-69 by game's end.

- March 2: UT outscored Kentucky 7-3 over the final 4:12, turning a 57-56 deficit into a 63-60 victory.

- March 5: UT outscored home-standing Florida 31-21 over the final 11:30, turning a 65-58 deficit into an 89-86 triumph.

- March 9: UT outscored South Carolina 21-0 from the 6:00 mark until the final minute, pushing a 68-51 lead to 89-51.

Clearly, Tennessee has shown a knack for outlasting its opponents.

"It's a long season for everybody," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl notes. "But a team that plays as many guys as we do, hopefully it won't feel quite so long. Hopefully, we're going to go into this SEC Tournament fresh and with a lot to play for."

Senior guard Jordan Howell thinks Tennessee's fresh legs will be a tremendous asset in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament to follow.

"Our depth helps us a lot come March because we're going to play nine guys," he says. "Nobody's going to get more than 28 to 30 minutes per game, so I think everybody will be fresh."

Being fresh is an even bigger asset – and an even bigger challenge – during conference tournaments than during the regular season. That's because teams who advance must play on back-to-back days with very little rest. Guys who play 25 minutes per game for Tennessee obviously need less bounce-back time than guys who play 35 minutes per game for opposing teams.

"We win one game, and the next game everybody should have their legs and be ready to go," Howell says. "I think everybody should be ready."

In addition to freshness, Tennessee has an edge in experience compared to most of the teams it will face. Howell is a fifth-year senior. Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith are fourth-year seniors. Tyler Smith started all of 2006-07 at Iowa and all but one game of 2007-08 for Tennessee. Fellow sophomore Wayne Chism started 18 games as a Vol freshman in 2006-07 and 29 as a sophomore this season. Ramar Smith has 43 career starts to his credit and Duke Crews, yet another sophomore, has 20.

"Everybody in our rotation has been in at crunch time toward the end of a game where Coach was looking for them to make a play," Howell notes. "I think everybody in our rotation has been in those situations and succeeded in them, and I think it gives everybody confidence going into crunch-time games."

In addition to freshness and experience, the Vols have considerable confidence heading into the SEC Tournament. They are coming off perhaps their best half of basketball all season, outscoring South Carolina 51-19 in the final 20 minutes of last Sunday's home finale. That should give the Vols a little emotional lift as they invade The Georgia Dome.

"I think so," Lofton says. "Any time you go out playing like that and have a win, I think that's great going into the SEC Tournament."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories