The Big Orange has shown an alarming knack for slow starts this season, incurring significant first-half deficits in six of 12 games to date. Tennessee trailed Oklahoma State by 12 points (24-12), Georgetown by eight points (12-4), Virginia by 15 points (21-6), Western Carolina by 10 points (14-4), Xavier by eight points (23-15) and Memphis by 15 points (42-27). The Vols managed to overcome their lethargic beginnings and prevail in just two of those games — Western Carolina and Xavier.
Given that slow starts proved costly in each of Tennessee's four losses, the Vols really need to generate some early momentum tonight against the visiting Rebels, who carry an 11-2 record. All five starters must be focused and energetic when the opening tip goes up ... something that wasn't the case in last Friday's 85-80 home-floor loss to Memphis.
"We definitely cannot come out flat anymore," junior wing Jordan McRae said. "That's something we can't do. We've got to come out with a lot of energy at the beginning of the game. If you come out flat against any team in the SEC it's going to cost you ... just like this one (Memphis) did."
McRae scored just 5 of his career-high 26 points in the first half against the Tigers and sophomore wing Josh Richardson produced just 4 of his career-high 20 before intermission. Still, they played passionately, if not productively, in the first half. That could not be said for all of the Vols.
"There will always be a couple guys that struggle (to start fast) but I don't think that will be a problem for us in the future," Richardson said. "After seeing the way we lost (to Memphis), if that doesn't help us pick our effort up in the next game then there's something wrong with us."
Having completed pre-conference action with an 8-4 record, Tennessee probably needs to go 12-6 in SEC play to give itself a good shot at earning an NCAA Tournament bid. That means the Vols need to hold serve at home and pick up three wins on the road. Losing at home to a team the caliber of Ole Miss would be a real blow to the Vols' post-season hopes. Strange as it sounds, the SEC opener is basically a must-win game.
"It's very important," senior center Kenny Hall said. "From this point forward it's a whole new season. This is the second half of the season, and SEC play is going to be a lot tougher. The level of basketball is going to continue to rise, so protecting this house and getting our first win in the SEC is very important."
Richardson agrees that tonight's SEC opener is crucial, noting: "Oh, man, it's real important for us. I think the SEC is one of the best conferences in the nation. To keep our NCAA hopes up and keep our guys' spirits up, I think we've got to come out and win our first couple of SEC games, get us on our feet again."
Hall has tried to convey to Vol newcomers that the level of physicality and intensity increases significantly once league play begins.
"I told them it's going to be tough," he said. "The level is just going to rise, and there's nothing I can pretty much tell them to prepare them. It's just going to be an experience they're going to have to buckle up and be ready for."
Although conference play is rugged, Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin sees advantages.
"It's probably better playing against the league teams because you're familiar with coaching styles and personnel, as opposed to the unknown in early season games," he said. "You watch a couple of pieces of film (on pre-conference foes) and think you have a feel. Then all of a sudden it's live and this guy is better than I thought he was, bigger than I thought he was, faster than I thought he was. In league play at least you are somewhat familiar with the competition."
That familiarity could help Tennessee tonight, but only if the Vols can avoid the type of slow start that has dogged them in several previous games. McRae insists that they will.
"Any SEC team we play we're going at 'em," he said. "We've just got to come out with a lot more energy."
GAME NOTES: Ole Miss shooting guard Marshall Henderson leads the SEC in scoring at 18.2 points per game and averages four 3-pointers per game. Senior forward Murphy Holloway, a 6-foot-7, 240-pounder, averages a double-double with 15.8 points and a league-leading 10.9 rebounds per game. Senior forward Reginald Buckner, a Memphis native, ranks second among all SEC players with 40 blocked shots in 13 games, an average of 3.1 per contest. Point guard Jarvis Summers leads the SEC with a 4.8-to-1 assist/turnover ratio.... The Rebels lead the league in scoring (83.1 points per game) and 3-point field-goal defense (27.0 percent).... Tennessee leads the all-time series with Ole Miss 69-39, including a 39-10 advantage in Knoxville. The Rebels are 1-14 at Thompson-Boling Arena, their only win coming in 1991. They have dropped 11 straight at TBA since then.... Tonight's game will be televised by the SEC Network.