Another big finish?

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On Jan. 26, 2012 Tennessee's basketball team was 9-11 overall, 1-4 in SEC play and a loser in five of its previous seven games. The Vols trounced visiting Auburn 64-49 two days later, however, to kick-start a 9-2 run that produced an 18-13 regular-season record and a 10-6 conference mark.

On Jan. 26, 2013 the team is 9-8 overall, 1-4 in SEC play and a loser in five of its previous six games heading into today's 2:05 tipoff against visiting Alabama.

Naturally, Vol fans are hoping history repeats ... that the Big Orange will catch lightning in a bottle and close the regular season with a flourish. The question: Can the Vols salvage the season with another big finish?

"We definitely can," sophomore wing Josh Richardson said. "Last year we just played like we knew how to play, with just a little bit more intensity. Guys can't run with us, can't play with us when we do."

The schedule could be a factor. The Vols' first five SEC games included two meetings with nationally ranked Ole Miss, plus road games at Kentucky and Alabama. Of the 13 remaining games, however, seven are at home and five of the six road foes have losing league records. The lone exception: Arkansas at 3-2.

Clearly, the schedule sets up well for Tennessee to make a late-season rally similar to last year's.

"We've been looking at the schedule like 'These are games we've got to win,'" Richardson said. "We've figured out how we've got to play the rest of the conference, so it (team mood) has been real optimistic."

A team with a 1-4 conference record has no right to feel optimistic but the Vols take comfort in the fact they've been competitive in their recent losses. They fell by three at Alabama, by 10 at Kentucky and by six at Ole Miss.

Basically, the gap between losing and winning has been small.

"We just need to keep playing well," Richardson said. "I don't think it's going to be that tough. If we play like we know how to play we'll be fine."

Senior center Kenny Hall believes Tennessee's rally from a slow start last season will help the Vols make a similar rally this season.

"We've been through adversity before, so this is not the first time," he said. "This is just another thing we have to deal with. There's still a lot of basketball to be played."

Most of that basketball will be played at Thompson-Boling Arena, where Tennessee is 7-2 this season. If the Vols can sweep their seven remaining home games and split the six road games they'll go 10-3 and finish the regular season with a 19-11 overall record and an 11-7 league mark. That would put them on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

"We're just concentrating on not losing home games," junior wing Jordan McRae said. "We're not totally out of the hunt at all. Last year we lost six (SEC) games, and I think we can get on a little bit of a run right here."

The Vols got on "a little bit of a run" last season. Do they have faith they can do so again?

"I've always had faith," head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "We played some talented opponents early. Now it's just a matter of taking note of what cost us late in games, let's not do that again and find a way to win the game."

GAME NOTES: Martin and his Vol staff will wear suits and sneakers today in honor of NABC's "Coaches versus Cancer weekend." Martin is a cancer survivor, whose playing career was cut short by Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in the late 1990s. He is in full remission.... Alabama (12-6 overall, 4-1 SEC) has won four games in a row. The victims: Tennessee, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Kentucky.... McRae ranks second among SEC players in league scoring at 21.6 points per game.... UT athletics director Dave Hart played basketball at Alabama in 1969-70. He served as a graduate assistant for the Tide in 1972.... Tennessee's school record for assists came against Alabama. Bill Hann dished out 19 of them Jan. 6, 1968 in an 82-63 Vol win at Tuscaloosa.... Steve Hamer turned in one of the greatest games ever by a Vol against Bama in the 1996 SEC Tournament at New Orleans, producing 31 points and 21 rebounds.... ESPN2 will televise today's game with Mark Jones and Jimmy Dykes handling the broadcast.

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