March 7, 2009
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee claimed a share of the SEC East Division title and is playing its best basketball of the season. Yet, according to freshman guard Scotty Hopson, there's still more to be done.
"We're playing well right now, and guys are playing together and sticking together as a team, but there's always room for improvement," Hopson said. "There's always room to push forward and get better."
The Vols (19-10, 10-5 Southeastern Conference) laid their claim to the East Division title with a 86-70 win over South Carolina on Tuesday. That doesn't make their meeting with Alabama (16-13, 6-9) on Sunday any less important though.
Tennessee is finally looking ahead to an NCAA tournament bid which almost seemed out of reach a few weeks ago. Coach Bruce Pearl knows that a win over the Crimson Tide could still earn the Vols points with the NCAA selection committee.
"These games have tremendous implication for tournament seeding, and the key to advancing is seeding in the tournament. Just ask the four No. 1 seeds last year how important seeding is," Pearl said.
The top seeded team from each of the regionals advanced to the Final Four last season for the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament.
The win over South Carolina marked the first time during the SEC season and the first time since the middle of December that Tennessee grabbed three consecutive wins.
The Vols appeared to be on the verge of crumbling after a loss at Kentucky on Feb. 21. Pearl accused the players of quitting and failing to play together as a team. The loss got the players talking to one another about committing to the team and staying focused on the game.
"We're preaching it all the time," junior forward Wayne Chism said. "That's what we've been doing for the last three games -- staying together -- and we won three in a row."
Even though Alabama's season has fallen far short of expectations after the Tide was picked to finish atop the SEC West, the Vols aren't anticipating an easy game on Sunday.
They expect to have their hands full with senior guard Alonzo Gee, an athletic shooter who's averaging 15 points a game and dominating the offensive boards.
Tennessee has also struggled against the West -- the Vols are 2-3 against the division. And the Tide has long been a traditional rival of the Vols as one of only two SEC schools that lead the all-time series.
The Vols have won two straight, but the Tide owns a 71-63 advantage in the series.
"They've got plenty of talent, a lot of talent," Chism said. "They'll want to spoil our last home game."