The Tennessee Vols basketball team tips off against the red-hot Oregon State Beavers this afternoon at 3:30 (CT) in a 5 vs 12 matchup in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s been a season full of ups and downs for Rick Barnes’ Tennessee team, who are looking to make some noise in the Big Dance.

The Vols enter Friday’s contest after dropping a hard fought contest to Alabama in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Tennessee has struggled late in games all season. With a tendency to go cold in the second half, finding a go-to guy down the stretch is a problem for the Vols. That is a common problem when relying on standout freshmen to lead the team in the scoring department in Jaden Springer (12.5 PPG) and Keon Johnson (11.2 PPG).

The biggest concern for Tennessee is the status of their six-foot-nine senior leader John Fulkerson. After taking a nasty elbow from Florida’s Omar Payne in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, Fulkerson left the game with facial fractures and has been deemed day-to-day by Barnes.

With Fulkerson’s availability in question, the Vols will be forced to turn to their small ball lineup that they rolled out against the Crimson Tide on Saturday. If the senior big man is unable to go this afternoon, the Vols could be in serious trouble.

It is no secret that Fulkerson is a vital piece to Tennessee’s team. The Volunteers are an astounding 13-1 when Fulkerson scores in double figures on the year.

There is no doubt that Barnes will have his hands full in Indianapolis on his 25th career trip to the NCAA Tournament. Barnes holds a 24-24 record in the Big Dance, along with one trip to the Final Four, two appearances in the Elite Eight, and seven Sweet 16s.

However, Barnes has done most of his damage with teams that enter the tournament seeded 1 or 2. His record with teams entering the tournament with a 3-seed for worse is just 14-21 with only three trips to the Sweet 16 to show for it.

Oregon State enters the contest having lost seven consecutive games in the NCAA Tournament, with their last win coming in 1982. The Beavers, after having a fairly unimpressive regular season, had to win the Pac-12 Tournament to punch their ticket to the dance.

The Beavers are led by the backcourt tandem of Ethan Thompson (15.3 PPG) and Jarod Lucas (12.9). Oregon State will go as far as that duo can take them offensively.

The Beavers’ X-Factor comes in the form of six-foot-seven, 200-pound forward, Warith Alatishe who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Pac-12 Tournament. Alatishe comes into the tournament averaging 9.9 PPG to go along with 8.5 RPG, good for second in the Pac-12.

Tennessee’s Yves Pons will likely be tasked with the responsibility of keeping Alatishe in check on Friday.

Oregon State is not a team that lights up the scoreboard which plays directly into the hands of this Vols team. The Big Orange hang their hat on the defensive end which is where this game will be won.

The prize for the winner? A likely date with the future No. 1 NBA Draft pick Cade Cunningham and his Oklahgoma State squad.

*Big gulp*


Featured image courtesy of Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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