How Tennessee basketball can win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee basketball is working on the fundamentals that coach Rick Barnes feels the Vols still need to get better with before the SEC Tournament starts.

"There are areas where we know that we have to get better that we're going to see no matter who we play," Barnes said.

The Vols (17-7) are scheduled to open the tournament Friday (approximately 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the winner of Thursday's game between Florida and Vanderbilt.

Here are three things Tennessee can do to win the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville:

Play to defensive identity

Tennessee's calling card has been its defensive play. It's not complicated: Defense will remain UT's best chance to win.

Fortunately, Tennessee enters after playing one of its best halves of defense all season as it shut down Florida in the second half of its 65-54 win Sunday. 

The Vols also got Josiah-Jordan James back in the past three games after he missed a pair of games with a left wrist injury. James gives Tennessee an elite level of defensive versatility, as he can guard four positions on the floor capably. 

UT allowed 71.5 points per game without James. It has held teams to less than 60 points in two of the past three games.

But it's more than James. Tennessee gets great defense from guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, as well as former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons.

Keep Victor Bailey Jr. cooking

It's hardly a secret that Tennessee's offense has been inconsistent. But when it is at its best is when Victor Bailey Jr. is at his best.

The junior guard has been pretty good lately for Tennessee. He is averaging 18.2 points in his past five games since a scoreless outing at LSU on Feb. 13. He has made multiple 3-pointers in five straight games, including seven against South Carolina on Feb. 17.

But Bailey showed he can score in more ways against Florida. He got out in transition and converted multiple three-point plays.

Bailey is Tennessee's best scoring threat and he has to be that for Tennessee to play to Sunday.

Get the good John Fulkerson again

Forward John Fulkerson played a strong game against South Carolina on Feb. 17, seemingly flipping back to himself. But the senior vanished in the following three games before again having a great game against Florida.

He had 14 points and seven rebounds against the Gators, while carrying Tennessee in the first half in a way that he hadn't this season. Fulkerson has to repeat the performance in every game the rest of the way for the Vols to have a shot at reaching lofty goals, including winning the SEC Tournament.

"Being optimistic and positive, I hope it does (continue)," Barnes said. "Nobody is pulling for him harder to carry over what he did Sunday than all of us who are involved with him. We want to see him do that, because we think he deserves it, but he's going to have to do it."

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.