"I think it's a must-win for us," sophomore wing Jordan McRae said prior to Monday's practice. "We definitely want to go down there, play hard and put ourselves in the best position going into the (SEC) Tournament."
Fellow wing Cameron Tatum called LSU "the most important game on our schedule."
Even head coach Cuonzo Martin — master of the understatement — conceded that, "We're fighting for our (post-season) lives."
That's unfamiliar territory for Tatum, a fifth-year senior who was a member of NCAA Tournament teams in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. Thanks to a 16-13 record and a 92 RPI, however, the Vols are longshots to make The Dance in 2012.
"Since I've been here we haven't really had that problem," Tatum said. "But sometimes it's good for players to understand that your back's against the wall to see how are you going to accept the challenge?"
"It's going to be good for us because we're having to fight," Tatum said. "We've had the luxury (in previous years) of being able to win some games and automatically get in the Tournament. And it's giving me a chance to step up even more from a leadership standpoint."
That Tennessee finds itself with even a prayer of making the NCAA Tournament at this point is no small feat. The Vols stood 10-12 after suffering a 69-44 thrashing at Kentucky on Jan. 31 but have won six of seven games since then. Still, they have a long way to go.
"There's plenty of work to do, and our guys are hungry right now," Martin said. "We're fighting. We don't have any margin for error."
Despite a 6-1 record in February, Martin said the Vols have no reason "to be happy or think we've done something special. We have the same right as anybody else to win ball games but we have to continue to get better."
The coach put his troops through grueling workouts in October, November and December. After 29 games, though, his players are susceptible to fatigue, physically and mentally. To combat this, Martin has been shortening Tennessee's workouts lately.
"Sometimes I'll look at the practice plan and I'll say, 'Man, I don't feel like this today' because of the body language of the guys," he said, "so we'll just shoot free throws or go to something different."
Several recent practices have been so brief that the players scarcely broke a sweat.
"A lot of times I'll go into a practice based on how I'm feeling," Martin said. "If I'm feeling exhausted and fatigued I'll just shut it down; we'll get some shots up, then walk through (assignments) for 20 minutes. If I'm feeling a certain way, I can only imagine how they're feeling."