No. 5 Tennessee can earn the Vols’ first NCAA No. 1 seed by adding SEC Tournament title

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fifth-ranked Tennessee and coach Rick Barnes have a lot at stake at the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

The Volunteers (24-7) start making a final argument for the program’s first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when they open play at the SEC Tournament on Friday. They are trying to add a tournament title to their SEC regular-season championship, which Tennessee hasn’t done since the 1942-43 season.

It won’t be easy.

“Now it’s you either win or you go home,” Barnes said of this time of the season.

This is the first time that Tennessee has been the lone No. 1 seed since the SEC revived the tournament in 1979 after sharing the East’s top seed in 2006, 2008 and 2009. The Vols have reached the SEC Tournament final three of the past five events, with the only win in that span coming in 2022.

“We’ll be ready,” said Dalton Knecht, a Tennessee senior and both the AP SEC Player of the Year and the league’s newcomer of the year after the Northern Colorado transfer led the league in scoring.

Four SEC teams finished tied at 13-5, a game back of the Vols in league play. Kentucky (23-8), which has won this tournament 31 times, leads that pack as the No. 2 seed and is looking for its first title since 2018.

No. 19 Alabama (21-10) has won this tournament two of the past three years, and coach Nate Oats knows how much it means not having to play until Friday, when the Crimson Tide debut in the last game of the quarterfinals.

“Getting a bye to Friday makes it much more likely that you’ve got a chance to win that tournament,” Oats said.

No. 12 Auburn (24-7) earned the No. 4 seed and likely will face 15th-ranked and fifth-seeded South Carolina (25-6) if the surprising Gamecocks under SEC coach of the year Lamont Paris win their opener Thursday under their second-year coach.

“To win 13 games in the league this year is really something,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “This league was daunting, the best I’ve seen it.”

The tournament, set for Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena at least through 2030, starts Wednesday night with No. 12 seed Arkansas playing 13th-seeded Vanderbilt. No. 11 seed Georgia faces Missouri, which went winless in league play.


The SEC has a bunch of good scorers this season. Knecht was leading the league with 21.4 points a game, only to take that up once conference play began. Then he averaged 25.5 points to lead all Division I players in conference-only competition, edging out Purdue’s Zach Edey (25.4).

Knecht bested Alabama’s Mark Sears, who has scored at least 20 or more in 21 games this season.

Kentucky freshman Reed Shephard put on a show in the regular-season finale, knocking off Tennessee by nailing seven 3s and finishing with 27 points. Teammate Antonio Reeves has scored 20 or more points in seven straight games, the first player from Kentucky to do that since Jamal Murray in the 2015-16 season.

Auburn’s shooter is Denver Jones, the transfer from Florida International who is 21 of 33 outside the arc over the past five games. He has made at least a trio of 3s in each of those games, including going 7 of 9 in the regular-season finale over Georgia.


Kentucky has taken fans on a roller coaster ride this season, though now the Wildcats are pointed upward, going into this tournament winning five straight and seven of the last eight. The loss came by a point on a buzzer-beater at LSU.

The Wildcats have beaten three AP Top 25 teams in this span, the last an 85-81 win at Tennessee to finish the regular season.


Alabama got Latrell Wrightsell Jr. back from a concussion just in time. He helped Alabama snap a three-game skid with an overtime win over Arkansas to end the season and clinch the No. 3 seed. That means Alabama won’t play until the final game Friday night, giving starting guard Rylan Griffen time to heal the calf strain that kept him out of the regular-season finale.

Oats thinks missing Wrightsell, who is 27 for 27 at the free-throw line this season, cost Alabama dearly.

“We’d have a league championship if he hadn’t gone down,” Oats said. “But that’s some of the adversity we’ve got to fight through. We didn’t win a league championship, so let’s get ourselves back together and let’s compete for a tournament championship.”


AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Alabama contributed to this report.


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