Rick Barnes and his team are coming off its best win of the season after knocking off then-No. 24 South Carolina at home, giving Barnes his first win over a ranked team since taking over in Knoxville in April. A staunch defensive effort held the Gamecocks to just 69 points while Tennessee caught fire from behind the arc to hit on 48 percent of their 3-pointers to bury Frank Martin's team.
So when the Vols (10-8, 3-4) heads to Tuscaloosa Tuesday to face Alabama (10-8, 1-5), how do they continue to maintain that momentum?
"I'm not sure it's a matter of maintaining it," Barnes said. "We've got to go forward. We've got to get better. There were some things that we did well, but when you go back ... South Carolina missed a dunk that would have cut the lead to six right around the two-minute mark. It was a close game, and we still have to learn to play every possession."
Winning every possession will be a tough task against a Crimson Tide team that, while averaging just 67 points per game, likes to push the floor and play along the perimeter. Alabama knocks down an SEC-high eight 3-pointers per game, something that can be a concern for a Tennessee defense that has struggled to defend the perimeter this season.
The Vols defense ranks No. 170 in adjusted defense per kenpom.com and SEC teams are punishing them accordingly, converting 40.5 percent from behind the arc.
"I do know that we have proven that we can get up and guard the ball," Barnes said. "We need to do that more consistently. We're still not where we need to be with our ball-screen defense. This is going to be a challenge in Tuscaloosa. They're going to shoot 25 threes, and so we're going to have to defend the three-point line."
Alabama's defense, however, has been solid, ranking 34th in adjusted total defense according to kenpom.com. Tennessee's offense comes in at the exact same clip, making this matchup the most intriguing portion of the game. The Vols will need point guard Kevin Punter to continue his dominant scoring streak to find success. Punter is the country's seventh-leading scorer averaging 22.3 points per game.
"It could be a very high-possession game. I think both teams are getting better defensively," Barnes said. "When you have teams that are getting better defensively, it puts you in longer shot clocks because you normally are going to work hard at getting option one, two, or three and going deep, and getting them deep into the clock. That can kind of slow the game down a little bit. I do think we are pretty similar in the fact we both want to play a pretty high-possession game."
A win would give Barnes victories over all three fellow first-year SEC head coaches and put Tennessee at .500 in SEC play. With the two teams' strengths playing to the other's weakness and Alabama winning five games decided by 10 points or less on the season, this could come down to the final possession — something the Vols are prepared for as they look to top their rival.
"We're asking our guys to do more," Barnes said. "We can't ever get to a maintain mentality like we are there. I'm not sure you can do that with anything, but that's what we talked about (Sunday) and tried to show them clips of where they've shown that they can do it. Now, can we do it longer and more often and stay with it."