Vols host Rebels tonight at 7

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With 27 games behind them and tonight's showdown versus Ole Miss in front of them, the Tennessee Vols have a small window of opportunity but a wide range of possibilities.

They can still qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

They can still qualify for the National Invitation Tournament.

They can still spend the postseason watching on television.

That's because, with a 14-13 record and four games left in the regular season, the Big Orange has yet to establish an identity. The Vols aren't an elite team hurtling toward the Final Four, a la Kentucky, and they aren't an awful team limping toward the finish line, a la South Carolina. They belong somewhere in that huge expanse between the two extremes.

Best-case scenario: Tennessee sweeps its four remaining regular-season games, then wins three or four outings (depending on seeding) to claim the league tournament title. That would give the Vols a record of 21-13 or 22-13 and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Welcome to The Dance, Cinderella.

Worst-case scenario: Tennessee loses its four remaining regular-season games and its SEC Tournament opener to finish 14-18. Welcome to the offseason, Cuonzo Martin.

Bottom line: The Vols' previous 27 games settled virtually nothing. Ultimately, the success or failure of the 2011-12 season will hinge on what Tennessee does in the next four games, plus the SEC Tournament.

That should give the team a tremendous sense of urgency.

"It's at an all-time high," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "We just have to go into these games knowing these teams are just as hungry as we are. If we play effective and execute the way we can, we'll be fine."

Perhaps the Big Orange can display the backs-to-the-wall tenacity that a short-handed Alabama squad showed in keeping its postseason hopes alive by beating the Vols last Saturday.

"Alabama did a great job of coming out with energy," Vol junior Skylar McBee said. "They didn't have their two best players but you could tell they played with a little chip on their shoulder and played well. You've got to give credit to them. I think that's what we have to do: We have to play with a little chip on our shoulder and play with energy. We can't take any nights off."

The Vols already took one night off this month, giving one of their worst performances of the season in last Saturday's 62-50 loss to the Crimson Tide. It was a disappointment they can't allow to linger.

"They played better than us that night," McBee conceded. "That's the way it is. We can't dwell on the loss. We just move on to the next game, and I think we're going to do that."

Despite the setback in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee is 6-6 in SEC play and tied for fourth place in the 12-team league. That's significant, since the top four seeds get first-round byes in the league tournament next month.

"Everybody's excited," McBee said. "We're glad to be where we are, glad to have the opportunity to be in the position we're in. We just have to keep getting better every day. If we do, the seeding will take care of itself."

Golden thinks the Vols are in good shape, as well.

"Being tied for fourth is a good position, especially with four games left to the SEC Tournament," he said. "We're in a good position, and we're playing our best basketball of the year."

Actually, the Vols were playing their best basketball of the year before last weekend's meltdown snapped a four-game winning streak.

"You're going to have games like that," McBee said. "It was just one of those games. I think we're going to get that momentum back and, hopefully, go on another winning streak."

A modest winning streak produces a National Invitation Tournament bid. A significant winning streak produces a spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A winning streak that runs through the SEC Tournament finals produces an automatic NCAA bid.

Even with 27 games in the rear-view mirror, the Tennessee Vols still find themselves entertaining an abundance of possibilities.

"As a basketball player, this is what you dream of ... that it will come down to the last few games with you knowing these games are huge," Golden said. "You have to take on that challenge and be ready to embrace that."

NOTES: Ole Miss brings a 15-11 overall record and a 5-7 SEC mark into tonight's game, scheduled for a 7 o'clock tipoff.... Oddly enough, the Rebels have scored 1,715 points this season, their opponents 1,716, producing an average margin of 0.00.... Cuonzo Martin will wear a blue bow tie tonight to promote awareness of prostate cancer.... Tennessee hasn't lost to Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the same regular season since 1990-91. The Vols already fell to MSU this season.... Ole Miss is expected to start a lineup of 6-foot-9, 225-pound Reginald Buckner (7.0 points, 8.1 rebounds per game), 6-foot-9, 210-pound Terrance Henry (11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds), 6-foot-7, 240-pound Murphy Holloway (11.0 points, 8.9 rebounds), 6-foot-4, 210-pound Nick Williams (10.0 points) and 6-foot-4, 184-pound Jarvis Summers (9.8 points, 3.3 assists per game).... Tonight's game will be televised by CSS.

Josh Richardson

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