There are only a few scenarios that could exacerbate Tennessee's well-documented road struggles this season. The Vols have only won once away from Knoxville on the season, including a double-digit defeat in Columbia against SEC-worst Missouri Feb. 13, and are being outscored by 19.5 points in their last three away contests.
Losing the team's leading scorer with an injury would qualify.
Kevin Punter, the senior who averages 22 points per game and ranks third in the SEC with 18 games of 20 or more points, is "day-to-day" with a stress fracture in his right foot, per coach Rick Barnes. His absence makes Wednesday's task all the more difficult as Tennessee (13-14, 6-8) travels to South Carolina in an attempt to sweep the Gamecocks. The converted point guard was ruled doubtful for the game, leaving the Vols without their biggest offensive threat and their most important distributor.
"He is doing his training and everything with (athletic trainer) Chad Newman and (strength coach) Garrett Medenwald and his rehabilitation and what he has to do with that," Barnes said. "The fact is he was over in the gym (Monday) morning and had a boot on. He said it was feeling a little bit better, but it is still going to just be day-to-day. I don't see him playing, certainly Wednesday night, but I have been fooled before. We are just going to monitor it day-to-day."
Tennessee has proven it can win without its most consistent scorer, though. The Vols trounced LSU at home on Saturday with Punter sidelined, using Shembari Phillips to run the point The freshman racked up 13 points in 38 minutes during his first real stretch of extended playing time.
"Shembari (Phillips) obviously played more minutes, but we just told our team that this is what they have worked for all year," Barnes said about Punter's absence. "Guys that haven't had the minutes, when you are called on, you have to be the next guy up to do your job. We didn't change a lot. We prepared the same way. We didn't make a big deal about it. We pretty much felt after the Kentucky game and especially the next day that (Punter) probably wouldn't be around to play because he didn't practice. Not that we did anything in practice, but he really didn't even do the walkthrough with us. Nonetheless, I think it's just a credit to our team."
That home success just hasn't translated on the road, however, and Tennessee will have to penetrate an intense South Carolina defense thanks ranks No. 44 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense efficiency ratings. The Vols bested Frank Martin's team at home on Jan. 23, but traveling away from Thompson-Boling Arena to face the No. 2 team in the SEC is a different story.
"(Martin) believes in fighting you on every inch of the court," Barnes said. "He's not going to let you think that you're going walk out and get the ball on this area of the floor. He's not going to let you reverse it easily. On offense, I think he's like everybody. He puts his system in on getting everyone to play to their roles, but it'll be a much different game in terms of they're going to be a much more aggressive team. I would arguably say that they might be the most aggressive team in the league in terms of their half court defense, really getting after you and contesting every pass and every shot. That's what they do."
Not having Punter to facilitate the offense will be a hindrance, and the Vols shaky road defense will be tested thoroughly by players like Michael Carerra, who averages 14.8 points per game, and Sindarius Thornwell, who notches 12.9 per night.
"Defensively, we've got to work hard at not fouling against a team that's aggressive and puts you in situations where you do have to foul," Barnes said. "It's a mindset, and it's a nine o'clock game, so that's a little rhythm. We're all asking the question, 'What's different on the road?'"
But Tennessee has experience playing away from Knoxville without one of its stars before. In fact, it was the team's only road win of the season. Armani Moore missed the Jan. 16 game with a sprained ankle and the Vols were able to rally for an 80-75 win. Barnes is hoping his young nucleus can replicate that success Wednesday against a much tougher team.
"The thing I like about this group, and again, we didn't make a big deal about it," Barnes said. "It's not like I stood up in front of the team (at Mississippi State) and made this great pep talk about, 'Armani's not going to play here.' We did the same thing with (Kevin Punter). This is what it is. You other guys that have been here, we're not going to ask you to do something that you can't do. We didn't say, 'Let's win one for the gipper here.' We didn't do any of that. We said we've got enough, and we've just got to go and everybody's go to be willing to do more."