The ''two points away'' comment refers to one-point homefloor losses to UT-Chattanooga (69-68) on Dec. 5 and Nebraska (62-61) on Dec. 30.
Of course, there's a flip side to that coin: The Vols are a 3-point basket from being 6-6, since a turnover kept Xavier from getting off a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds of a 71-69 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 11.
Since the Vols will be heavy underdogs in their only remaining non-conference game -- Jan. 22 at No. 19 Louisville -- they probably need to go 10-6 in SEC play to have any kind of shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. A 17-12 overall record might earn an invitation, especially if the Vols could point to a league record that is four games over .500.
''The conference season is a lot more important than the non-conference,'' Peterson said.
Although he conceded that his squad has encountered ''a lot of peaks and valleys,'' the Vol coach added: ''Here of late, I like the way our team has played.''
That's an interesting comment, since the Vols appeared to choke in last Thursday's 62-61 homefloor loss to Nebraska. Leading 61-59 with 40 seconds left, they missed four free consecutive throws, then fouled a 3-point shooter with one second left, enabling the Cornhuskers to score the tying and winning points. Although Peterson says he couldn't sleep after that setback, he has since found some bright spots in that loss.
''I thought we executed on both ends of the floor, especially in the second half,'' he explained. ''We put everybody where we thought they needed to be to make the right plays in the right situations. But sometimes it doesn't work out that way.... I was encouraged by the way our team played and fought down the stretch.''
The coach also was encouraged by Sunday's 83-51 pasting of hopelessly overmatched Coastal Carolina.
''Against Coastal Carolina, they did what we asked 'em -- come out from the start and be very aggressive, take 'em out pretty quickly,'' he said. ''We feel like we're playing better, and we're excited to start SEC play down in Athens.''