Vols chase another road win

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Maybe Tennessee’s Basketball Vols should adopt the opening line of a vintage Willie Nelson hit song as their team theme:

“On the road again; I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

Illogical as it sounds, the Vols seem to play significantly better on the road than at home. Heading into Tuesday night’s game at Arkansas, the Big Orange is 3-0 in SEC road games, compared to just 1-2 in SEC home games. Incredibly, the Vols are shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range in SEC road games, compared to 30.5 percent in SEC home games.

So, is this Tennessee squad better on the road than at home?

“That is a question I ask myself and our staff,” Vol head coach Donnie Tyndall said, subsequently adding: “I think our toughness at times (on the road) has been a little bit of a difference.”

Senior captain Josh Richardson agrees. When asked by InsideTennessee why he thinks the Vols have been so successful on the road, the senior captain replied: “Just being tougher than people.”

Fair enough. But if the Vols are tough enough to win on the road, why weren’t they tough enough to beat Alabama and Texas A&M at home?

“We got out-toughed,” the player said.

Sometimes a hostile crowd elevates a visiting team’s focus. Asked if Tennessee’s focus might be sharper on the road Richardson shrugged and replied: “I don’t know. I try to approach every game the same but I can’t speak for my teammates.”

Sophomore wing Robert Hubbs thinks teamwork is the key to Tennessee’s road success. He suggests that facing the taunts of a rival’s fan base unifies the Vols.

“We play together on the road,” he told IT. “We know it’s going to be tough each time we go on the road, so we play together.”

Asked if teamwork was lacking in Saturday’s home loss to A&M, Hubbs replied: “I think so, yeah. But it’s coming along. We’re going to get better at it.”

After conceding that his troops appeared “a little bit more nervous in front of our home crowd than we have on the road,” Tyndall added: “I don't know if that is purely coincidental or if guys feel a little more pressure at home because all the fans are here, and they want to do so well to keep them coming out. Maybe they put too much pressure on themselves.”

Both home losses occurred against quality teams (Alabama and Texas A&M) with good crowds in attendance, so perhaps the Vols wilted under the big-game glare. That happened to Tyndall’s 2010-11 Morehead team. Playing before a packed house and a national TV audience, the Eagles saw their 29-game home winning streak snapped by an Eastern Kentucky team they had beaten nine times in the previous 11 meetings.

“It was a sold-out crowd, the biggest crowd in the history of Morehead,” Tyndall recalled. “We just didn't play well. We played tight, nervous, tried too hard or whatever you want to call it. We went on to win 11 of our next 13 games (beating Louisville in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament).”

Nerves may explain the Vols’ struggles in SEC home games but they don’t explain the Vols’ success in SEC road games. That may be more about marksmanship than mindset.

“We go on the road and make ten 3s at Mississippi State,” Tyndall noted. “That gets you over the hump.”

He’s right. The Vols drained 10 of 20 shots from behind the arc at Starkville. They made 8 of 22 treys in a road win at Missouri, then matched their season-best by shooting 55.6 percent (10 of 18) from 3-point range in a win at South Carolina. Interestingly enough, the other time Tennessee shot 55.6 from 3 this season came in a competitive road loss at North Carolina State.

As Tyndall noted: “Shooting the ball well behind the 3 (point line) can help make up for some deficiencies in other areas.”

The coach has no explanation why the Vols become long-range bombers on the road but he isn’t losing sleep over it.

“I hope that trend continues,” he deadpanned, “at least through Tuesday night.”

GAME NOTES: Tennessee has a 12-6 record, Arkansas a 15-4 mark. The Vols have won eight of their last 10 contests. Each team is 4-2 in SEC play…. Tennessee guard Kevin Punter is shooting 69.2 percent (9 of 13) from 3-point range over the past three games…. Vol sophomore Robert Hubbs is averaging 9.2 points per game over the past nine games after averaging just 3.0 through the first nine…. Arkansas leads the SEC in scoring (82.3 points per game), 3-point percentage (37.4), assists (17.3 per game) and assist/turnover ratio (1.5 to 1.0)…. Bobby Portis, the Razorbacks’ 6-foot-11, 242-pound center, is the SEC’s leading scorer (17.5 points per game) and its fourth-leading rebounder (8.5 per game)…. Tennessee upset the Hogs 74-69 Jan. 13 in Knoxville, pushing the Vols’ lead in the all-time series to 19-14. Josh Richardson scored a season-high 20 points in that game and Hubbs added a career-best 16 points…. Tuesday’s tipoff is set for 8 o’clock Central (9 Eastern) with TV coverage provided by ESPNU.

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