Tennessee wins SEC regular-season championship: Are Vols a No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament?

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For the sixth time in its history, and just the second time since 1967, Tennessee men’s basketball has an outright SEC regular-season championship.

A hard-fought 66-59 win Wednesday at No. 17 South Carolina also has Rick Barnes’ No. 4 Vols (24-6, 14-3 SEC) in hot pursuit of the first NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in program history — which would aid the quest for their first Final Four. As seen in an arduous stretch to end the season, the Vols have the ingredients to make it happen.

That starts with SEC Player of the Year favorite — and national player of the year must-mention — Dalton Knecht, who had a game-high 26 points Wednesday and carved up the Gamecocks (24-6, 12-5) with triples, mid-range swishes and a thunderous inbounds dunk.

Knecht had 31 points the first time these teams met on Jan. 30, a 63-59 South Carolina upset that stands as UT’s only home loss of the season. But the two other consistent cogs in this Vols season did not play well that night. They did Wednesday.

Point guard Zakai Zeigler (0 for 6, two points in the first meeting) continued the best stretch of his career with a 13-point, seven-assist, five-rebound night. Big man Jonas Aidoo (2 for 8, six points in the first meeting) had 14 points and nine rebounds. Zeigler found Aidoo for one of the biggest buckets of the night with South Carolina on a run that chopped a 14-point lead down to three.

Those three players and one of the stingiest defenses in the sport bring it just about every night, with others up and down the lineup chipping in more as needed. Jahmai Mashack was the catalyst off the bench in Saturday’s win at Alabama, and on Wednesday he forced South Carolina star Meechie Johnson into a key turnover late, then defended and avoided a foul on a Ta’Lon Cooper 3-point miss.

No. 15 Kentucky visits Thompson–Boling Arena at Food City Center on Saturday for the regular-season finale, completing an unprecedented four straight games against teams ranked in the top 20 for Tennessee. That’s also four Quad 1 victory opportunities, and if the Vols get the next one, they should be ahead of Arizona for the last projected No. 1 seed before conference tournaments begin.

One thing the Vols now know: They are the No. 1 seed in that tournament and will start play at noon Central time on March 15 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

This is Barnes’ second SEC regular-season championship, sharing with Auburn in 2018. The Vols’ only outright title since 1967 was Bruce Pearl’s 2007-08 team that went 14-2 in the league. Had SEC Coach of the Year favorite Lamont Paris and the Gamecocks found a way to win, a scenario existed for the standings to end in a five-way tie.

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(Photo: Jeff Blake / USA Today)

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