Crucial test for UT

You can make a strong case that Tennessee's basketball team faces its most crucial game of the season Saturday evening at Auburn (6 p.m. tip-off at Beard-Eaves Coliseum).

Of course, you could've made the same case about the Vols' game at Georgia on Jan. 5 and their home game with Mississippi State on Jan. 12. The fact is, every WINNABLE game left on the UT schedule is a crucial game.

The Big Orange, 10-9 overall after a 23-point road loss to Louisville and a 22-point homefloor loss to Kentucky, has 10 regular-season games remaining. The Vols must win five of these just to finish 15-14 and assure themselves of a non-losing season.

Here's a look at what's left:

Jan. 29 at Auburn: The Tigers are 9-9 overall and 0-5 in SEC play. Tennessee has won the last two meetings the Loveliest Village of The Plains, so this is a very winnable game, even without injured center Brandon Crump.

Feb. 2 at Vanderbilt: Tennessee has claimed three of the last four meetings in Nashville but the Vols were humiliated by the Commodores (88-63) in the earlier game at Knoxville. Still, the 'Dores have lost four games in a row, so they can be had.

Feb. 5 vs. LSU: The Tigers are 10-6 overall, 3-2 in SEC play coming off an overtime defeat of Ole Miss. This shapes up to be another crucial game for Tennessee.

Feb. 9 vs. Alabama: The Tide (16-3 overall, 5-1 SEC) looks like the class of the Western Division. Moreover, Buzz Peterson's record against the Tide is 0-5, with most of the losses coming by lopsided margins -- 95-82 and 91-72 (2002), 76-71 (2003), 83-70 and 84-49 (2004). This looks like another homefloor loss for the Vols.

Feb. 12 vs. Florida: The Gators (12-4, 4-1) suffered their only SEC loss to date at home vs. Tennessee, so the revenge factor could figure prominently. The earlier meeting was UT's best performance of the season, and it will take another top effort to win the rematch.

Feb. 19 at Ole Miss: The Rebels are coming off an overtime loss at LSU that dropped their record to 11-9 overall, 2-5 in league play. Ole Miss is not a particularly good team but it should be tough on its home floor.

Feb. 23 vs. South Carolina: The Gamecocks (11-6, 3-3) have had Buzz Peterson's number, beating him five times in seven meetings. Tennessee got the royal screw in the earlier game at Columbia, however, so the Vols should be primed for a peak effort in the rematch.

Feb. 26 at Arkansas: Stan Heath has the Razorbacks (14-5, 2-4) playing much better than a year ago. Throw in the Hogs' imposing homefloor advantage, and this could be a long afternoon for Tennessee.

March 2 at Kentucky: The Wildcats (15-2, 6-0) drilled Tennessee by 22 points on the Vols' homefloor, so there's no reason to think the rematch in Lexington offers even a glimmer of home for the Big Orange.

March 5 vs. Georgia: The Bulldogs (7-9, 1-5) are the SEC's worst team. They already lost to Tennessee in Athens, so this should be a Vol victory. The key words there are SHOULD BE. Obviously, a team that can lose on its homefloor to Nebraska and UT-Chattanooga can lose to just about anyone anytime.


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