Vols eager to prove SEC is nation's best hoops league

·5 min read

Jan. 29—"Go Gators!"

"Roll Tide!"

"War Eagle!"

"C-A-T-S! Cats! Cats! Cats!"

Tennessee junior guard/forward Josiah-Jordan James may not be screaming those chants at the top of his lungs Saturday, but he will be pulling for Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky and every other Southeastern Conference men's basketball participant in the ninth annual Big 12/SEC Challenge. The No. 18 Volunteers visit Texas in the finale (8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN) of the 10-game extravaganza.

"I believe that the SEC is the best basketball conference in the nation, and I'm definitely pulling for every other school in the SEC," James said Friday afternoon on a Zoom call. "It just makes our conference look better and brings more excitement to our games."

The Vols have thrived under coach Rick Barnes in recent Big 12/SEC Challenges, defeating Kansas State in 2017, Iowa State in 2018, West Virginia in 2019 and Kansas last season, with last January's 80-61 trampling of the Jayhawks in Thompson-Boling Arena avenging a hard-fought 74-66 loss in Lawrence in 2020.

Tennessee's success in this event has helped the SEC claim a 25-24 edge in the past five seasons, which followed a dominating 20-10 run by the Big 12 during the first three years it was held.

After his top-ranked Tigers escaped Missouri late Tuesday night, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was asked by the SEC Network about Saturday's showcase and said: "The two leagues that are lining up to be the deepest and the best leagues in the country are the Big 12 and the SEC. There are going to be some great matchups."

If the yardstick for determining the best league is the amount of programs at the top, the SEC had Auburn, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee among the top 12 teams in Friday's NET rankings, while no other conference had more than two representatives. Yet if the gauge is from top to bottom, the Big 12 has all of its members in the top 75 of the NET.

The number of NCAA tournament teams is always a source of conference pride every March, and ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi has four SEC members (Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State and Texas A&M) and two Big 12 programs (TCU and West Virginia) on the bubble of his latest 68-team projection, so an impressive showing by either league certainly could help on that front.

"I think you're talking about the two best leagues in college basketball right now," Barnes said Friday without hesitation. "I think every game you play with the NCAA committee is a resumé-building game. Two of these teams we're playing will eventually be members of our league, but I do think you've got the two best leagues in college basketball in terms of watching games."

Barnes is not a huge fan of the late tip, adding that his Vols likely will return to Knoxville around 3 a.m. Sunday, with a Tuesday night game against visiting Texas A&M up next. Of course, the biggest storyline to the matchup in Austin is Barnes himself, having become the winningest coach in Longhorns history with a 402-180 mark from 1998 to 2015.

Tennessee players are quite aware the spotlight will be on their coach when they step on the Erwin Center floor.

"We know this is a big game," James said. "Every SEC/Big 12 Challenge is big, and we look forward to these games every year. This year is especially big for Coach. We know that we want to go in there and play for each other but also go in there and do it for him.

"He left an amazing legacy at the University of Texas."

VJ's rough patch

Saturday is also a homecoming for Vols fifth-year senior guard Victor Bailey Jr., who played at McNeil High School in Austin before starting his college career at Oregon and then transferring. Bailey averaged nearly 25 minutes a contest last season but has played just four total minutes in Tennessee's past three games, never even checking into last Saturday's 64-50 defeat of LSU.

"VJ has definitely been in a tough situation, but he's handled it with so much class," James said. "He comes in with a smile on his face every day. He and Zakai (Zeigler) are probably our two most enthusiastic players, and VJ has done a great job of staying in good spirits. Whenever his number is called, I know he'll be ready."

Said Barnes: "We still think he's going to help us win basketball games. It goes back to consistency, but VJ is going to play. He works too hard, and he's too loved by his teammates and coaching staff. He's not going to quit, and we're not going to quit on him."

Kennedy on list

Point guard Kennedy Chandler is among the 15 players on the watch list for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, which is presented by the Atlanta Tipoff Club. Chandler is one of three freshmen and one of four SEC players on the list.

In his 18 games this season, the 6-foot, 171-pounder from Memphis leads the Vols with 39 steals and also has blocked six shots. His average of 2.2 steals per game is tied for second among Division I freshmen, and his seven steals against Presbyterian on Nov. 30 tied a single-game program record.

Tennessee ranks ninth nationally in steals (188) and 11th in forced turnovers (17.7 per game).

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.