No. 4 Alabama (20-11) vs. No. 5 Tennessee (20-11)
Friday, March 15, 3:30 p.m. ET
Bridgestone Arena (19,395) • Nashville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Alabama leads, 75-66
Up next: Winner plays winner of Florida-LSU on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ABC)
Probable Alabama Starters
C-Moussa Gueye, 7-0, 255, JR, (1.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg)
G-Rodney Cooper, 6-6, 215, SO, (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg)
G-Levi Randolph, 6-5, 205, SO, (7.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
G-Trevor Lacey, 6-3, 215, SO, (11.9 ppg, 4.0, rpg, 3.2 apg)
G-Trevor Releford, 6-0, 195, JR, (15.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .436 3FG%)
Key Reserves: Nick Jacobs (6-8, 265, SO); Devonta Pollard (6-8, 200, FR); Andrew Steele (6-4, 225, SR); Retin Obasohan (6-1, 210, FR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (12.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg, .534 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (7.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
G-Armani Moore, 6-5, 205, FR, (2.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg,)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, JR, (16.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, .364 3FG%)
G-Trae Golden, 6-2, 205, JR, (12.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.0 apg)
Key Reserves: Kenny Hall (6-9, 230, SR); Skylar McBee (6-3, 195, SR); Quinton Chievous (6-5, 200, RS FR); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); D’Montre Edwards (6-6, 206, JR)
The opening tip
Nobody knows exactly where Tennessee and Alabama stand in the race for one of the final NCAA tournament at-large spots, but it’s a safe assumption that both are very close to the in/out line.
That sets up a potential play-in game on Friday afternoon. Tennessee will feel great about its tournament chances with a win. A loss will lead to a nerve-wracking Selection Sunday in Knoxville.
The two regular-season contests between these teams did little to differentiate them. The Vols dropped a 68-65 contest to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but pulled out a 54-53 win in Knoxville just two weeks later.
The Vols have been the more successful team as of late. They come into Friday’s quarterfinal matchup having won nine of their last 10 games. Alabama has lost three of its last five contests. Though Tennessee might have slight fatigue issues after playing Mississippi State on Thursday in a second-round matchup, the Vols also are familiar with the Bridgestone Arena surroundings, while Alabama, the recipient of a double-bye, has yet to play in Nashville.
Guard play is the strength of the Tide. Led by Trevor Releford (15.6 ppg) and Trevor Lacey (11.9 ppg), Alabama boasts one of the top backcourts in the league. Like UT, Alabama also regularly utilizes a four-guard look, surrounding center Moussa Gueye. Gueye is limited offensively, but the 7-footer is a tough defender to get around.
Stokes has found success rebounding against the smaller Crimson Tide lineup, though. He grabbed 15 boards to go along with his 18 points in UT’s January win over Alabama. Guard Jordan McRae paced Tennessee in the Jan. 12 loss with 21 points.
Protecting the ball will be crucial for the Vols on Friday. Tennessee has 16 turnovers in the loss to Alabama and just 10 in the win. The Vols lost the ball 16 times against Mississippi State on Thursday – a figure they will likely need to improve to advance to the semifinals on Saturday.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin’s thoughts on Alabama:
“You know, they have the parts. They have guys. Anytime you got tremendous guard play you got a chance to be in any ballgames. Our guards have to be quick on all cylinders. We've got to get Jarnell the ball and let him be the player he is.”
Tennessee is 61-48 all-time in the SEC tournament. … Tennessee is 12-0 this season when point guard Trae Golden scores at least 12 points. … UT is 15-3 in games played in the state of Tennessee this year. … Martin is now 4-4 as a head coach in conference tournaments. … A win would make UT the second most successful team in SEC tournament history in terms of winning percentage (.564). … Former Vol Len Kosmalski (1972-74) is Tennessee’s SEC Legend for the tournament this year. … Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart played basketball for the Alabama (1966-70).
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga