Pressure situation

The Tennessee Basketball Vols have not played particularly well in high-pressure situations this season.

They didn't handle the pressure of being a top-10 team, dropping three games in a row after a 7-0 start elevated them to No. 7 in the national rankings.

They didn't handle the pressure to hold serve at home, posting a mere 10-8 record in Thompson-Boling Arena.

They didn't handle the pressure created by head man Bruce Pearl's return from suspension, going 3-6 in the last nine games he coached.

They didn't handle the pressure to lock down a No. 2 Eastern Division seeding and a first-round SEC Tournament bye, suffering a critical 64-58 home-floor loss to Kentucky in Sunday's regular-season finale.

So now the Vols face even more pressure as they prepare to battle for the SEC Tournament title this week in Atlanta:

- The pressure to avenge a 68-65 loss to Arkansas on Jan. 8 in Fayetteville.

- The pressure to play well at The Georgia Dome, where they have an all-time record of 5 wins and 10 losses in SEC tourney play.

- The pressure to redeem themselves after losing 13 of the past 24 games.

- The pressure to lock up a program-record sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

- The pressure to win four games in four days and claim their first league tournament title since 1979.

- The pressure to salvage an 18-13 season with a strong finish.

Does Tennessee feel these pressures? You bet.

"You couldn't feel any more pressure than I feel," Pearl said this week. "But I don't believe the (external) pressure is going to change anything. At the same time, we've got to understand that there are a lot of teams in this tournament that will feel like we will."

Sophomore center Kenny Hall agrees that there is considerable pressure on the Vols this March.

"It is pressure but we can look at it two ways: Either we're going to fold under pressure or we're going to man up under pressure," he said. "That's the only way to look at it right now.

"This is one of the times we've just got to strap up our boots and go to work."

Hall concedes that the ongoing NCAA investigation into Tennessee's program is a bit distracting at times.

"It's been up and down but we try to stay positive," he said. "We try to learn from the negative but try not to let that affect us on the court. We try to build on it and let it make us stronger."

Junior Scotty Hopson, a three-year starter who is Tennessee's most experienced player, says his teammates need to understand that the stakes are higher in March.

"Just play like it's your last game," he said. "Guys have been doing that at times. Just continue doing that each and every possession."

Freshman forward Tobias Harris believes the Vols are quite capable of a big finish if they play up to their potential.

"We just need to work hard, come together as a team and look at the goal ahead of us," Harris said. "We need to close out games the right way, play as a team and play together."

Despite a 3-6 record over their last nine games, he believes the Vols are close to being a formidable team.

"We've always been close," Harris said. "We all know that we can make a run and know that we will."

Pearl thinks so, too. He says his team has not lost its confidence or its drive, even in the face of mounting losses.

"The more you lose sometimes the easier it gets," he said. "But our attitude has been really good. I think they're accountable. They're not placing blame on others. We're close.

"This team still has an opportunity to write its history. It's (a matter of) how badly they want it and how focused they're willing to be. We're good enough to beat anybody in the league."

Indeed. The Vols proved in their eight SEC wins that they can beat anybody in the league. In the other eight SEC games, however, they proved they also can lose to anybody in the league.


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