LITTLE ROCK — The foundation for Tennessee’s six-game winning streak predates the obvious — sidelined during two losses with a hamstring injury, point guard Trae Golden returns to the lineup.
If those back-to-back losses had been early in the SEC season, that might fly, but those results left Tennessee 3-6 and sinking like a rock halfway through conference play. Former Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt imploring his players not to let go of the rope grew old, but coach Cuonzo Martin must have espoused something similar.
On Feb. 2 in Fayetteville, Arkansas scored 27 points off 20 Tennessee turnovers. Four days later, the Vols lost to Georgia in Knoxville and success in the SEC begins at home.
Against Arkansas, from one point ahead to 11 behind, a five-minute stretch went like this: turnover, turnover, missed shot, two free throws, missed shot, turnover, turnover, missed shot, turnover, missed shot. Such droughts can be discouraging, particularly when dead ahead are Florida and Kentucky, plus five road trips.
Aware of the situation, players can’t be conned. They have to believe the coach is shooting straight when he tells them that all is not lost, that there is lots of basketball to be played. Martin sold ‘em.
Reviewing the run that transformed Tennessee from a going-nowhere team to a group that is being mentioned for an NCAA Tournament bid, the Vols have found a variety of ways to win — another compliment to Martin, my choice for SEC Coach of the Year.
Tennessee held South Carolina and Vanderbilt to less than 40 percent shooting. Kentucky was lost without Nehrlens Noel, but the Vols won by 30. When LSU shot almost 46 percent, Tennessee topped 57 percent.
At College Station, perseverance is the catch-all. Regulation and the third overtime ended with something that could have been deflating — a missed free throw by Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes at the first buzzer and an easy layup that necessitated the fourth OT.
Against a Florida team angling for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Vols opened the second half with a blank for 3:35. From 7:45 to :55, Tennessee’s total production was two free throws. Tennessee won anyway.
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Despite trailing by as many as 22, Arkansas had a chance to get past LSU on Wednesday night in Baton Rouge. BJ Young’s ill-advised 3s hurt and so did a couple of sloppy passes by Young. Those passes were among 19 turnovers by the Razorbacks.
Young, who did not start but played 28 minutes, was 2-of-11 from the field with six turnovers.
Surely the 65-60 loss will end any speculation that Arkansas could somehow play its way into the NCAA Tournament with a fast finish to the regular season.
At this point, Arkansas looks to be a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in Nashville. No. 7 plays on Thursday evening vs. No. 10 and No. 8 plays No. 9 in the first game that day. Most likely Razorback opponents are Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Georgia, all of which Arkansas can beat.
The winner of 7-10 plays the No. 2 seed and 8-9 takes on No. 1, which should be Florida.
The five teams behind Florida with legitimate chances to make the NCAA field all won at mid-week. Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee were at home and Missouri picked up a rare road victory. Only Missouri is at home today.
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Of all the upsets in college basketball this season, none was more surprising than Penn State 84, Michigan 78 on Wednesday. The Nittany Lions were 0-14 in the Big Ten and the Wolverines were under consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Penn State did it with a tried and true recipe — six fewer turnovers and excellent 3-point shooting. Both teams tried 20 from long range. Penn State made 10, Michigan five.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.