KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee basketball players always believed, even when the world was telling them they had no chance.
ESPN’s popular “BPI” rating had given the Vols a 4 percent chance of winning the SEC before the season, and Tennessee was picked to finish 13th for the second year in a row at SEC Media Day.
Looking from the outside in, the Vols were the fifth-youngest team in the nation, and they had just lost their best player, Robert Hubbs lll. To boot, SEC basketball looked better than ever entering this season.
The No. 16-ranked Vols had a different look Saturday night, that of SEC co-champions after beating Georgia 66-61 in a hard-fought slugfest.
It’s the first time Tennessee has won the SEC men’s basketball championship since 2008, and it earned the Vols a No. 2 seed entering into a game next Friday at the SEC Tournament in St. Louis.
Tennessee will play the winner of the Thursday game between Mississippi State and LSU.
“Not bad for a team picked to finish 13th this year,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said immediately after the win Saturday night before the sellout crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols didn’t take the preseason snub personal, but it did serve as motivation from time to time.
“Grant [Williams] and I knew when we were going to SEC Media Day [in October] that those guys had no clue on how much work we put in during the offseason,” Tennessee junior Admiral Schofield said. “We had to sit there and listen to it and it was very hard.”
Williams, a sophomore forward, said the team’s confidence never wavered.
“Honestly, we knew what we were going to do from the get-go,” Williams said. “We knew we were going to do something special. We really didn’t pay attention to any of those rankings, [but] we might have used it every now and again for motivation throughout the year.”
No doubt, Barnes had seen to it that motivation wouldn’t be a problem after his 2016-17 team missed the postseason for a third straight year.
“We came back from the SEC Tournament last year and we knew we had to make some changes in the program,” Barnes said. “We came back and had the hardest spring we’ve had since I’ve been here. We spent time on the track running, and we did things that I haven’t done in 15 years as a coach, because we were going to find out who really wanted to be a part of this.
“We expect to win and we expect to be playing in March, and I told them you know what, if we’re not going to be on the court, I’m going to let you know what it’s like to be playing in March. We’re going to work. You don’t ever want to be on spring break if you’re a basketball player. Because if you are, that means you aren’t in postseason play.”
The players invested in the program and themselves, bonding together to get through the manufactured adversity.
Schofield said those early morning runs paid off, the team knowing if it could get through that degree of offseason work, it could handle anything.
“The biggest thing is those experiences add up, [so] when you’re in the game and your shot isn’t falling, you think back to those moments,” Schofield said. “We’re a bunch of 3-star guys who weren’t highly recruited, we know who we are.”