Discounting a Game 5 blowout of Div. II Chaminade, Tennessee's last eight outings have been decided by 10 points (loss to Duke), two points (loss to Memphis), eight points (loss to Oakland), five points (loss to Pittsburgh), four points (loss to Austin Peay), six points (loss to College of Charleston), four points (defeat of UNC Asheville) and three points (defeat of ETSU).
Since they lack the elite talent to overwhelm the opposition, the Vols' key is showing enough poise to win most of their close games. Having exhibited that poise versus Asheville and ETSU last week, Tennessee players are feeling pretty good about themselves these days, despite a 5-6 record.
"I said two weeks ago that the true growth of this team will be when we start winning those close games," senior wing Cameron Tatum said. "I said those games (close losses) were a learning experience for a young team and later on we'd start to win those games, that we'd look at the film and say, 'OK, are these teams beating us or are we beating ourselves?'
"If you look at the last two games we've been minimizing the mental lapses and capitalizing. Now you're seeing the results of that."
After four losses in a row, winning a couple of tight games in succession gave the Vols a huge emotional lift.
"It was very important," senior center Kenny Hall said. "I wish we could've won a lot more of them that we lost."
Hall believes the Vols are beginning to develop the four Cs — comfort, chemistry, cohesion and confidence.
"We're starting to lace up and just play, whereas before we weren't used to playing with each other," he said. "Our chemistry is getting a lot better, our focus is getting a lot stronger and everybody is more tuned in to what the coach is saying and trusting and believing in the system."
Sophomore point guard Trae Golden believes the hard-fought defeats of UNC Asheville and ETSU may prove to be the turning point of the season.
"Man, it was great," he said. "To be on a two-game winning streak, coming off a four-game losing streak, is really good. We're picking up where we left on those games in Hawaii. Now we just need to keep pushing, keep getting better as a team, and it will all come around. It will all fit together."
Tatum agrees that winning two tight games in a row could be a springboard to bigger and better things for this team.
"Winning those two was very important," he said. "We've been battle-tested. When we come up against the bigger teams in the SEC we'll know how to grind it out. We know what we need to do not to lose those ball games."
Lately, the Vols have found themselves facing early adversity. They had to rally from 11-point first-half deficits against both UNC Asheville (17-28) and ETSU (13-24) just to be in position to win at the finish.
"It is frustrating but we did a good job of overcoming that," junior guard Skylar McBee said. "We did a good job of staying focused on chipping away at it and making sure we were close enough at the end of the game that we could find a way to win."
Tatum believes Tennessee showed a lot of heart in both comebacks.
"We just buckled down," he said. "We were sick of losing. We want to get over that hump and get on a roll."
Golden believes the Vols' knack for coming from behind says a lot about them.
"We're just a resilient team, man," he said. "Coach Martin never panics. He believes in us and we just keep pushing and playing defense, knowing it will come around for us. If there's five minutes left, the game's not over. We're not going to quit. That's something we pride ourselves on and something we're going to keep doing."
NOTES: The Citadel brings a 2-9 record into tonight's game and is riding a seven-game losing streak. The Bulldogs are coached by Chuck Driesell, son of legendary Maryland head man "Lefty" Driesell. Chuck is 12-31 at The Citadel and 100-103 overall.... Tennessee won the last meeting between the schools 99-49 in December of 2003.... The Citadel is expected to start 6-8, 238-pound Mick Groselle (15.8 points, 9.9 rebounds per game), 6-7, 249-pound C.J. Bray (3.9 points, 2.4 rebounds), 6-6 Barry Smith (7.4 points, 3.2 rebounds), 6-0 Ashton Moore (8.7 points) and 6-0 DeVontae Wright (9.5 points, 2.6 assists).... Tipoff for tonight's game is 7 o'clock with television coverage provided by SportSouth.