That's why Saturday's game with Vanderbilt could prove to be a watershed moment. Down 30-13 early, the Vols clawed back from the brink of disaster to win 67-64. That showed perseverance or heart or mental toughness. Whatever you choose to call it, the ingredient that was missing earlier this season was the key to Saturday's come-from-behind victory, enabling the Big Orange to improve to 11-6 overall and 1-2 in SEC play.
"I don't think I've ever been down that much and come back to win the game," senior center Brian Williams said. "It felt great to know we're capable of doing something like that, so we're ready for our next opponent."
Freshman Tobias Harris believes the furious rally vs. Vandy taught the Vols a valuable lesson that will serve them well from this point forward.
"It's never over, especially in an SEC game playing against a great team," he said. "You could tell you can come back and win games, and we did a great job of that."
Sophomore Skylar McBee understands that some fans questioned Tennessee's heart after the Vols lost six of nine games following a 7-0 start. He believes the team exhibited plenty of mental toughness on Saturday, however.
"I think we did," he said. "These last few games we've had some deficits, and we lost some of our energy and poise. This time we battled back. That's what we have to do every time. The league is so full of talent that teams are going to make shots, teams are going to make runs. We have to stay together, stay positive and have that never-say-die mentality."
After starting SEC play at 0-2 with losses at Arkansas and at home to Florida, Tennessee desperately needed to beat the Commodores. That desperation didn't become evident, however, until the Vols fell behind 30-13.
"Sometimes out there it got tense," junior wing Scotty Hopson conceded. "There was definitely some do-or-die out there."
The Vols appeared on the verge of dying in the first 20 minutes, when they shot a putrid 20 percent (7 of 35) from the floor en route to a 30-20 halftime deficit.
"It was tough, man," Hopson said. "It was tough to keep our heads up and keep going. But this team is fearsome. Our veteran guys showed poise and purpose to get back in this game."
Basically, Tennessee got back in the game by shooting 49 percent in the second half and continuing to play stellar defense.
"I thought Steven Pearl came in and gave us a lift defensively," acting head coach Tony Jones said. "He got two steals, created some havoc out there. We got some runouts, and that was important. I think we turned up our defensive intensity even more in the second half."
Although the Vols' defensive intensity was evident, it wouldn't have been enough to produce a victory without the mental toughness they exhibited down the stretch.
Junior wing Cameron Tatum conceded the point, noting: "That's what the coaches were yelling from the sideline the whole game: 'Mental toughness. Let's win these four-minute increments. Show some mental toughness, and we can win this game.'
The advice was sound. The Vols did show some mental toughness and they did win the game. Now they just have to prove it wasn't a one-time occurrence.