🏀 Tennessee's quest for a No. 1 seed

And spring football is here!

Hello. This is the Josh and Swain Newsletter, a quick roundup of the week’s top stories and topics involving Tennessee and the sports world.

Here’s what we have for you today:

  • What (we think) Tennessee needs to do for a No. 1 seed

  • Three storylines to follow as the Vols start spring football practice

  • Tennessee’s revenge opportunity in the SEC Tournament

  • It’s SEC Baseball time!

TENNESSEE’S NEXT BIG STEP

Jahmai Mashack and the Vols are locked in

The Tennessee basketball team will enter the weekend trying to win the SEC Tournament.

The Vols have only one conference tournament title (2022) since 1979.

That’s the goal for Tennessee this weekend.

But the Vols have a bigger goal in mind as they get ready to play in Nashville.

Tennessee is shooting for the school’s first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

And projections — remember, that’s all they are right now — show a more favorable path to the Final Four with a No. 1 seed in the West Region vs being a No. 2 somewhere else.

Three teams appear locked into a No. 1 seed: Purdue, UConn and Houston.

How close is the race for the fourth No. 1 seed?

According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, this weekend could feature a game of “hop-scotch” between Tennessee and North Carolina, which jumped UT in Lunardi’s Thursday night update.

That’s just one person’s opinion, of course.

Jerry Palm’s Friday morning update for CBS Sports still has Tennessee holding on to the No. 1 seed.

On Friday, North Carolina will play Pittsburgh (No. 40 in the NET rankings) while Tennessee will play Mississippi State (No. 41).

How close is this race between UNC and Tennessee (with Arizona also in the mix, maybe)?

NET Rankings
Tennessee - 5
North Carolina - 7

KenPom Rankings
Tennessee - 6
North Carolina - 7

Quad 1 Record
Tennessee: 7-6
North Carolina: 8-3

Quad 2 Record
Tennessee: 6-1
North Carolina: 7-3

✳️ North Carolina also has the head-to-head win against Tennessee (100-92 on Nov. 29).

That doesn’t mean everything — the game took place more than three months ago and UNC got to host it.

But the Tar Heels hold that advantage.

So what does Tennessee need to do to get that No. 1 seed?

Great question!

It’s difficult to answer because we’re somewhat guessing what the committee will do — and we don’t know for sure how much the conference tournament games matter.

So, if you want Tennessee to get the No. 1 seed, root for Tennessee and against North Carolina.

There’s also this question: do you for sure want Tennessee to play all three days in the SEC Tournament?

Or would you take a Saturday exit to rest up for the big tournament?

Either way, Tennessee’s trying to win — and it starts with Mississippi State on Friday (more on that game later on).

In the meantime, check out this week’s Slay Ride with VFL Ron Slay, who’s all over SEC Network coverage of the conference tournament this weekend. ⬇️⬇️

SPRING FOOTBALL TIME

Nico and Co. get back to work (on the field)

The early version of the 2024 Tennessee football team will begin spring practice on Monday.

The Vols will hold 15 practices, which will include the Orange & White Game on April 13.

Tennessee has had a busy start to the offseason with a ton of players coming and going through the transfer portal, along with a large group of freshmen who enrolled for the winter semester.

What will the talk be on Monday when spring practice begins?

Here are a few storylines:

🟠 The Nico Era

Can we lead off with anything else?

Everyone will be curious to see what Nico Iamaleava can do next after his impressive start against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl.

Iamaleava showed off his potential that has everyone — coaches, teammates, fans, and the media — excited to see what he’ll become.

This is Iamaleava’s offense, and he has some new weapons to work with.

What can coach Josh Heupel and his coaching staff do to build on Nico’s performance against Iowa?

That’s been part of their conversation behind the scenes.

There will be excitement about what Iamaleava and Dylan Sampson, now UT’s starting running back, will do together in the backfield.

Hype has already started to build around Tennessee’s football team.

Nico is the biggest reason why.

⚫ The Newcomers

Tennessee added some help for Iamaleava through the transfer portal.

Wide receiver Chris Brazzell (Tulane), offensive tackle Lance Heard (LSU), and tight end Holden Staes (Notre Dame) are on campus and ready to play major roles in the Vols’ offense.

Brazzell (6-5, 195) is long and athletic and brings big-play potential to the offense.

With Bru McCoy still working his way back from his season-ending injury, Brazzell will have plenty of opportunities this spring to show what he can do (and work on learning the offense).

Heard was a must-get for Tennessee.

He projects as the Vols’ starting left tackle, with John Campbell Jr. likely sliding over to the right side.

Heard will have a big impact on how good Tennessee’s offense becomes this fall.

“He’s a giant, physical dude,” Matt Moscona of ESPN Baton Rouge told us in January.

Staes was an important addition because of the departure of tight ends McCallan Castles and Jacob Warren.

Other newcomers to watch this spring will include defensive backs Jermod McCoy (Oregon State transfer) and Jakobe Thomas (Middle Tennessee) and defensive lineman Jaxson Moi (Stanford).

And don’t forget the freshmen.

Wide receivers Mike Matthews and Braylon Staley have already created excitement.

As has Boo Carter, who will start out in the defensive backfield while also competing to be a returner on special teams.

🟠 The New Secondary

McCoy stands a good chance to earn a starting spot at cornerback.

Thomas could end up starting at safety, too.

The secondary will look very different this year after so many players departed from the 2023 team.

Sophomore Rickey Gibson started at cornerback in the bowl game and has generated some buzz.

Is he ready to play at a high level in the SEC?

The same question goes for other second-year defensive backs like Christian Conyer, Jordan Matthews and John Slaughter.

Jaylen McCullough started 51 games at safety for Tennessee, the most by any player in program history.

Who will emerge in McCullough’s spot?

It’s a big spring coming up for safety Andre Turrentine, who intercepted a pass against Iowa to stop the Hawkeyes’ best shot at scoring in the Citrus Bowl. 

➡️ Quick reminder: we can’t make too much out of spring practice.

Players are still learning and coaches will be cautious to avoid injury.

Tennessee will also miss several players who are recovering from offseason procedures.

But feel free to get excited… we only get so much football to talk about during the year.

It starts on Monday.

SPORTS NUGGETS

🏈 College Football leaders are close to finalizing a deal for the future of the playoff (news could come on Friday).

🏈 Nick Saban’s comments to Congress drew a lot of reaction this weekend, as you probably guess they would.

🏈 Tennessee’s defensive line should be a strength for the Vols as they prep for spring practice.

🏈 A LOT has happened in the NFL this week with free agency and trades. Here’s a tracker to keep (or catch) up on all of it.

🏀 Here’s an SEC Tournament schedule + recap from David Cobb at CBS Sports.

🏀 The story of Oakland coach Greg Kampe, who we gave an “attaboy” to this week after the Grizzlies punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

TENNESSEE’S REVENGE MODE

The Vols get another shot at Mississippi State

Tennessee has a revenge opportunity on Friday as the Vols prepare for Mississippi State in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament.

📍 Nashville
📅Friday, March 15
1:00 p.m. ET
📺 ESPN
📻 AM 990 The Sports Animal/WIVK

Mississippi State handed Tennessee its first SEC loss of the season on Jan. 10.

The Bulldogs won 77-72 in Starkville in what was a tough game for Tennessee’s big guys.

Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka both fouled out as Tolu Smith scored 23 minutes and did whatever he wanted down low.

Tennessee shot poorly in that game (8/29 from three) and made only 10 of their 16 free throw attempts.

This offers a nice get-back spot for Tennessee.

The Vols have had two other rematch opportunities after losses this season.

➡️ The results:
Tennessee 86, Texas A&M 51
Tennessee 66, South Carolina 59

We shouldn’t expect this game to be easy for Tennessee.

Mississippi State is on the bubble and playing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulldogs know that a second win against Tennessee would be big for their resume.

Smith will look to repeat his strong performance from a couple of months ago.

Tennessee has plenty at stake, too.

If the Vols clean up a few things from their last game against Mississippi State — better shooting, rebounding, hitting free throws — Tennessee should advance.

If the Vols beat Mississippi State, the winner of Auburn-South Carolina will be waiting on Saturday… with revenge on their minds.

IT’S SEC BASEBALL TIME

Drew Beam and the Vols look start SEC play strong

Tennessee’s baseball team will take a 16-game winning streak into the start of conference play this weekend.

The No. 5 ranked Vols will open the SEC schedule with a three-game series at No. 14 Alabama starting on Friday night (first pitch at 7 p.m. ET).

Tennessee’s offense has dominated a lot of the season.

The Vols (49) trail only Georgia (52) in total home runs among SEC teams this season.

Tennessee will start AJ Causey on the mound on Friday and Drew Beam on Saturday.

Sunday’s starter is TBD.

AJ Russell, who opened the season as Tennessee’s Friday night starter, has missed a couple of weeks due to injury but is close to returning.

He should pitch in relief this weekend as he works his way back to starting.

How challenging will this season be in the SEC?

Tennessee is one of SIX teams from the SEC ranked in the TOP 9 of the D1 Baseball rankings.

“Hell on Earth” is how Allan Bell of Driving The Line described playing through an SEC baseball schedule.

But Bell is bullish on Tennessee after seeing how the Vols have played in their nonconference games.

“Tennessee baseball has done everything that you asked them to do,” Bell said.

Buckle up.

The rest of the season should be a fun ride for Tennessee fans.

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