No. 15 Tennessee goes for 7th in row at Alabama

Coach Rick Barnes says 15th-ranked Tennessee is a completely different team from previous seasons and points to the defensive end of the court as the reason why.

The Volunteers, who have won six in a row, including a big victory at Kentucky on Tuesday, will look to take that defensive prowess to the road Saturday when they face up-and-down Alabama in an SEC showdown in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“We’re a totally different team,” Barnes told reporters after the win at Kentucky. “We haven’t been able to play defense at all for two years prior to this year. We maybe could play a game at home where we could win with some emotion. Emotion’s not going to win for you all the time. It’ll win for you some.

“We knew coming into this year that we had to totally change. We had a bunch of guys coming back a year ago where we started harping on it, but we made a commitment that that’s what we were going to do. We’re a totally different defensive team and much, much better.”

The Volunteers (18-5, 8-3 SEC) have held their last six opponents to 63 points or fewer. Lamonte Turner hit a 3-pointer with 26 seconds left and Admiral Schofield finished off Kentucky with a dunk in Tennessee’s 61-59 win at Rupp Arena on Tuesday.

The Crimson Tide (15-9, 6-5 SEC) have alternated wins and losses in their last six games. They are coming off a 67-63 loss at Mississippi State on Tuesday.

“We’ve been saying all along the SEC is a tough conference,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said after the game against Mississippi State. “It’s the best it has been in years and we have to be able to rise to the challenge, especially on the road. We can’t play as sporadic as we played tonight and expect to win a road game in this league.”

Barnes agrees with Johnson about the strength of the SEC and said that makes it even more important to be a defensive-minded squad. The Vols are 6-2 on the road.

“I mean you look at it — this is the best basketball league in the country and I don’t know why people don’t want to own up to that,” Barnes said after the win over Kentucky. “In one week you can go from first to last, somewhere in between, from 10 to four probably, because everyone is so bunched up. If it keeps going like it is right now, this (league) should have nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. It’s going to shake out somewhere down the line. This is as competitive as any league I’ve ever coached in.”

Tennessee heads into the weekend trailing first-place Auburn by one game in the SEC standings.

Saturday’s game will be the first meeting this season between the Volunteers and Crimson Tide. Alabama has won two of the last three games between the SEC rivals, but Tennessee won last year’s meeting 59-54 in Knoxville, Tenn.