Road Warriors

Playing in Athens' Stegeman Coliseum Tuesday night will be an advantage for the Georgia Bulldogs. It may be for the Tennessee Vols, as well.

For some reason that defies conventional wisdom, the Big Orange has played its best and most energetic basketball of 2010-11 on the road. The Vols swept Virginia Commonwealth and seventh-ranked Villanova in the NIT Season Tipoff Tournament at New York City, then dominated third-ranked Pitt in Pittsburgh. Even in a 49-48 loss at Charlotte, they limited their hosts to 30.2-percent shooting.

Conversely, Tennessee has played just one game at home in which the Vols put together two good halves of basketball - that coming in a 104-84 Game 14 blowout of Memphis. The Vols stunk up Thompson-Boling Arena in home-floor losses to Oakland, Southern Cal, College of Charleston and Florida. They stunk it up for a half Saturday against Vanderbilt, falling behind 30-13 before rallying to win 67-64.

Big Orange fans are hoping the second half vs. the Commodores was a turning point. Associate head coach Tony Jones isn't ready to make that leap of faith just yet, however.

"Could the Vandy game be a turning point? It can help, but we've been an inconsistent basketball team all year," conceded Jones, who is filling in as bench coach while head man Bruce Pearl serves an eight-game suspension. "We've got to improve on that."

The 2010-11 Vols thrilled their fans by rolling through the first seven games but frustrated their fans by losing six of 10 since then. Big Orange coaches weren't nearly as surprised by the about-face as the fan base was.

"We started off 7-0 but our coaching staff thought we had some chemistry issues, and our commitment to effort wasn't consistent for 40 minutes," Jones said. "Our commitment to effort was there defensively for 40 minutes (vs. Vandy) but our concentration wasn't there for 20 minutes offensively."

Like Tennessee's fans, Tennessee's players are hoping the furious rally vs. Vanderbilt is a sign that the worm has turned.

"It gives us a lot of confidence going into our next game," freshman Tobias Harris said. "It starts us off. You could see how much heart and passion we had to win that game. That's how we need to play every game. I think the guys finally can see that, and I think that's what we'll show in the upcoming games."

Junior wing Scotty Hopson also believes the Vols got a critical boost from beating the Commodores.

"Obviously, we needed that game," he said. "Our mindset going into the season was to win the SEC. We need to get our confidence up going on the road, and this could be big for us."

Senior center Brian Williams thinks so, too.

"Our defense has been lacking sometimes during the season; we have mental lapses we shouldn't have sometimes," he said. "But the way we came back (vs. Vandy) definitely builds our confidence going into the next game."

At 11-6 overall and 1-2 in SEC play, the Vols have frittered away their early-season momentum. Now they're facing a battle to get back in the chase for a division title and an NCAA Tournament bid.

"We have to get a streak going," junior wing Cameron Tatum said. "Our goal is to still win the league. This (Vanderbilt) win hopefully will propel us to get a little confidence and get a streak going."


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