Vols visit LSU tonight

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After failing to win a road game in his first year at Missouri State, Cuonzo Martin appeared ready for a repeat in his first year at Tennessee when a 25-point beat-down at Kentucky dropped the Vols' road record to 0-7.

The Big Orange has won two of three road games since then, however, generating some positive vibes heading into tonight's game at LSU.

"It just gives us the confidence that we can win on the road as long as we do whatever the coaching staff has planned out for us," senior wing Cameron Tatum said.

Tennessee's first road win was a 75-70 verdict Feb. 11 at Florida. Following a 62-50 loss at Alabama, the Vols posted a 73-64 victory last Saturday at South Carolina, confirming that the victory in Gainesville was no fluke.

"It was huge for us," sophomore wing Jordan McRae said. "Going into LSU off a road win definitely boosts our confidence."

Confidence is an invaluable asset on the road but it's difficult to maintain when a visiting team must overcome a fired-up opponent, a hostile crowd and generally unfavorable officiating.

"It's not easy to win games on the road. It's really tough," Martin conceded. "Going back to Missouri State, we didn't win a road game my first year. The second year we won one game, and the third year we broke records in road wins. It's more of a mental approach: You teach your guys how to compete and how to win on the road."

The Vols must have had no idea how to compete on the road earlier this season because their 0-7 start included lopsided losses at Memphis (69-51), Vanderbilt (65-47) and Kentucky (69-44). So, what enabled the Vols to reverse their road futility?

"We've just gotten better accepting the atmosphere and embracing it," Martin said. "And, obviously, we've defended better as a team."

"We're just going in with a better focus than we had before," McRae said. "We know we have a lot to play for, so all of these games on the road are must-wins."

Tatum credits the team bond for the turnaround, noting: "I think it's the chemistry we have together. Defensively, we're sticking to the script — playing good, hard, aggressive man defense, rebounding the ball and bouncing back. Even though we had a couple of turnovers (21) last game, we're sharing the ball a lot better and having a better feel for each other on the offensive end."

Tennessee's offense has improved dramatically on the road. After averaging just 51 points per game in January losses at Memphis, at Mississippi State, at Georgia, at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky, the Vols posted 75 points in the win at Florida and 73 in the win at South Carolina.

Martin conceded that a big key on the road is simply to "make shots," and the numbers support him. In their last three road losses the Vols shot 35.3 percent at Vanderbilt, 28.1 percent at Kentucky and 34.1 percent at Alabama. Conversely, they shot 48.0 percent in the win at Gainesville and 52.2 percent in the win at Columbia.

Asked about the improved shooting on the road, McRae replied: "I think everybody's elevating their game a lot more, just knowing we have to win these games."

Naturally, Tennessee's success on offense depends in large part on the guy who runs the attack, sophomore point guard Trae Golden. He produced 17 points and 7 assists in the win at Florida, then scored 21 points in the win at South Carolina.

"For us to be successful we need Trae Golden to be solid, especially offensively," Martin said. "When he's getting to the rim everything kind of flows. Not to put all the pressure on Trae Golden, but if he's able to penetrate and make stuff happen, everything opens up offensively."

Life on the road is especially difficult in SEC play. Tennessee is 2-5 in conference road games but 6-1 in home games, with the loss coming against top-ranked Kentucky. LSU is 1-6 in SEC road games and coming off a 72-48 humiliation at Ole Miss. The Tigers are 6-1 in league games at home, however, with their only loss also coming at the hands of Kentucky.

"Like most teams, they're more confident at home," Martin said. "They're taking tough shots and making big shots, running in transition, big guys stepping out and shooting 3s."

Still, Tennessee has a chance to beat LSU on its home floor tonight. The Vols have developed into a decent road team since their 0-7 start.

"I think it's a credit to our guys," Martin said. "I've been in locker rooms where you lose games and you're trying to keep guys positive. Young guys just see Ws, (thinking) we're not making progress since we lost the game."

Even as Tennessee stumbled to the 0-7 road start, the Vols developed more toughness, more confidence and more poise each time they visited an opposing gym.

"I saw that in certain games — 10 minutes here, 15 minutes here, maybe a half here," Martin said. "Then, all of a sudden, it started to follow."

The head man figures his team will need 40 minutes of toughness and poise tonight in Baton Rouge.

"We're getting better but we've got plenty of work to do," Martin said. "We've got a tough road game but we're going to do everything in our power to get it."

NOTES: Tennessee brings a 16-13 overall record and an 8-6 SEC mark into tonight's game. LSU is 17-11 and 7-7.... LSU leads the SEC in offensive rebounds (13.3 per game) but ranks last in 3-point shooting (28.8 percent).... Tennessee has won 14 of the last 19 meetings, including the past two in Baton Rouge (47-45 in 2008 and 59-54 in 2010).... Tennessee is 5-2 all-time in games played on Leap Day (Feb. 29).... "Senior Night" ceremonies should have little impact on tonight's game since all three LSU seniors are backups. Storm Warren averages 8.3 points in 19.3 minutes per game, Chris Bass 1.7 points in 13.1 minutes per game and Malcolm White 3.2 points in 10.1 minutes per game.... LSU's probable starting lineup is 7-foot, 260-pound Justin Hamilton (13.2 points per game), 6-foot-8, 262-pound Johnny O'Bryant III (8.4 ppg), 6-foot-6, 205-pound Ralston Turner (8.9 ppg), 5-foot-9, 178-pound Andre Stringer (10.4 ppg) and 5-foot-11, 182-pound Anthony Hickey (9.1 ppg, 3.8 assists per game).... Hickey was Kentucky's Mr. Basketball last season after averaging 18.5 points and 8.3 assists per game as a senior point guard at Christian County High School. Cuonzo Martin tried to recruit him after accepting the Vol reins last March, even sending assistant coach Kent Williams to watch Hickey play. Ultimately, Martin said Tennessee lost out because "we were more or less playing catch-up." Hickey has started 27 of 28 games for the 2011-12 Tigers, shooting 38.6 percent from the field, hitting 30.8 percent from 3 and averaging 31.0 minutes per game. He has a 2-1 ratio of assists (105) to turnovers (53).... Tonight's game tips off at 8:04 Central (9:04 Eastern) with television coverage provided by CSS.

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