Tennessee began the season with aspirations of being a sleeper in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division with all its starters back and talented newcomers like freshman guard Chris Lofton and transfers like forward Andre Patterson.
Then the season started and the Vols (12-14, 5-8) must now win out just to finish above .500 to even qualify for a third straight bid to the NIT.
That's not likely with a road game at Kentucky following the Vols' Saturday contest at Arkansas (17-9, 5-8).
With that in mind and Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton looking for improvement anywhere, the injury-ravaged Vols supplied some with their 80-72 win against South Carolina on Wednesday.
Tennessee started the first half with an 18-0 run and scored 51 in the first half but committed 12 second-half turnovers and allowed the Gamecocks within 75-72 with less than a minute remaining.
Peterson attributed his team's fast start and cool heads down the stretch at the foul line to a relaxed attitude he told them to take on before the game.
"I told them go out and have fun," Peterson said. "'Relax. Don't put so much pressure on yourself and enjoy the moment. You all enjoy playing basketball, so smile and enjoy it.'
"They carried that over a little bit."
Six of Tennessee's losses have been by five points or less and there have also been blowouts at the hands of Alabama, Kentucky and Vanderbilt by 18-25 points each.
With the season spiraling downward and the likable Peterson likely out at the end of the season, the Vol players could be coming together with nothing to lose.
"I told them they can't get worried about distractions on the outside," Peterson said. "We have to focus on getting the next win. I did not want them to get beat down like that. When you lose games that are tight, they put more pressure on themselves.
"I wanted them to enjoy playing the game."
The Vols enjoyed a win against Stanford to open the season at the Maui Invitational but were overmatched in the next two rounds with big losses to No. 2 North Carolina (94-81) and Texas (95-70).
Tennessee returned to the mainland and suffered inexcusable losses to Nebraska and Tennessee-Chattanooga by one point each at home and eked out wins against Wofford and Xavier by six and two, respectively.
Big Orange and Peterson looked like they had righted the ship by starting 3-2 in the SEC including a home win against Mississippi State to snap the Bulldogs' 16-game road winning streak and a road win in overtime at Florida.
Then leading senior forward Brandon Crump hurt his ankle against Louisville and missed four games while star senior shooting guard Scooter McFadgon went into a horrible shooting slump.
After hitting on 38 percent of his 3-point attempts to rank eighth in the SEC last season, McFadgon has slipped to 31.4 percent this season.
Though McFadgon leads the team in scoring average (14.1 per game), he hasn't led the team since posting 23 in the first Florida game and could be out for Saturday's game at Arkansas with a bruised kneecap.
Crump hurt his other ankle at Ole Miss last Saturday in Tennessee's 60-58 loss and he was noticeably hobbled despite his 22-point, 10-rebound effort against South Carolina.
Lofton, who leads the SEC in 3-point percentage at 48.1 percent (74 of 154), scored a career-high 25 points and nailed 7 of 13 long-range bombs against South Carolina.
"They played very well and they showed the explosiveness that they have by scoring 51 points in the first half," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath. "It tells you a lot about the capability of that team to score points."
Lofton averages 12.4 points per game and has been a major bright spot for the Vols.
Junior point guard C.J. Watson is shooting 39 percent from outside, averages 12.5 points per game and has a 1.7-1 assist-turnover ratio to rank seventh in the SEC.
Watson was near his averages with 9 assists and 6 turnovers against South Carolina.
Crump and Patterson, a transfer from UCLA, are shooting 59 and 57 percent from the field and average 5.5 and 6.3 rebounds, respectively.
Major Wingate, Dane Bradshaw and Jemere Hendrix average between 13-18 minutes per game and are the only reserves who average double figure minutes for Tennessee.
"One thing I give this team credit for: They come to practice every day," Peterson said. "They give it their best. I mean, they really work hard. At this point of the season we're disappointed with our wins and losses, but you'd never know it to watch this team practice.
"So (Wednesday) night was a big start."
Vols Just Want To Have Fun
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