It’s not the SEC Championship or the regional tournament on the mind of Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello this week. It is the No. 1 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks, and no one else.
As No. 4 Tennessee prepares to play Arkansas in Lindsey-Nelson Stadium this weekend, the head coach of the Vols is making sure that his players are staying focused on the series at hand.
While Tennessee is knocking on the doorstep of hosting a regional tournament in Knoxville, and with the SEC tournament right around the corner, Vitello has concentrated on his team not being worried about the standings or even that the top spot in the SEC is on the line this weekend.
“I think that has been mentioned enough to where I now know that,” said coach Vitello talking to the media on Thursday. “But there’s another week to go in the SEC, and if you are in any major conference, it’s crazy what can happen down the stretch, or how one weekend can kind of turn things upside down. I think the best time to kind of look up and see where you’re at is on the bus to Hoover.”
Tennessee can’t afford to be worried about games down the road or even where they sit in the standings. As Vitello said, the best way for Tennessee to put itself in the best position is to focus on what is right in front of them.
“There’s a lot of hoopla [around the Arkansas series],” said Coach Vitello during his appearance on The Drive on Fox Sports Knoxville on Wednesday. “Our kids need to focus on exactly what they can control.”
During that same interview with The Drive, Vitello spoke about one story, in particular, dating back to the Vanderbilt series to emphasize the idea of how important the team’s focus will be.
Before Evan Russell hit his grand slam against Vanderbilt, there was a small delay while he was stepping up to the plate after Luc Lipcious reached first to load the bags. It was in that short delay that Russell was able to briefly soak up the moment with the crowd but then channel that energy into extreme focus at the plate.
Sure enough, something good happened.
The SEC’s Convoluted Standings Could Become More Clear… Or Not
As for the Vols this weekend, though, there is no shortage of storylines. Tony Vitello is playing against his most recent former team as the Vols host the top-ranked team in the nation in a Top-5 matchup. Tennessee is pulling out all the stops on the weekend, with Checker-Lindsey being the big event on Saturday. And as mentioned earlier, the winner of the series could be the leader in the SEC with one weekend to go.
Both the Vols and Razorbacks are 17-7 in SEC play and boast a .708 win percentage. However, Vanderbilt sits right behind them at 16-7 in conference play. Essentially, Tennessee and Arkansas could both take that number up to 20, while Vanderbilt could sweep and bring their SEC win-total to 19.
There could be a number of situations that occur, but essentially both Tennessee and Arkansas could come out of the weekend as the conference leader. Whereas if Vanderbilt sweeps No. 18 Ole Miss, the Commodores will be tied with the winner of the Tennessee and Arkansas series, but only if one team wins the series 2-1.
The standings are convoluted and complicated, which is exactly why Vitello is trying to keep that story out of his player’s minds. The team can only focus on what they can control.
No. 4 Tennessee will host No. 1 Arkansas in a three-game series on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday this weekend. The first pitch on Friday will be at 6:30 p.m. ET, and it will be Chad Dallas with the ball once again.
Photos of Vitello and Russell Provided by Tennessee Athletics Communications.