The losing habit

Winning is a habit. So is losing. The Tennessee Vols have slipped into a losing habit lately, dropping five of their past six games. Making matters worse, each loss followed essentially the same script:

Tennessee claws its way to an intermission lead but comes out sluggish to start the second half. The opponent takes advantage of the Vols' lethargy to seize the momentum. Unable to make field goals, free throws or defensive stops, Tennessee watches the foe make a five-minute run that proves decisive.

Vol coach Bruce Pearl is an upbeat guy but even he admits that his team's recent downward spiral has been hard to take.

"It's frustrating," he said. "The fact we've played well enough to be in every game is encouraging to me. But losing is frustrating, and it does tear you up."

Always on the lookout for a positive omen, Pearl paused, then added: "That which doesn't kill you will only make you stronger. I'm hoping these losses will make us stronger."

Watching the Vols go 2-5 in January, it's hard to believe this is the same team that went 7-0 in December, with upsets of Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas. Winning was a habit in December. Losing has become a habit in January.

"When you're on a roll and you're winning, it's really easy to keep it going," Pearl noted. "When you're not, it's hard to get it going. Understanding that challenge is what our team faces."

As if losing games isn't stressful enough, the Vols also have lost their star player. An injured ankle caused All-American Chris Lofton to miss the past two games – both losses – and he is almost certain to sit out Wednesday night's game with Georgia. When it rains it pours, right?

"Our ability to handle the adversity and respond to it ... that's what sport is all about," Pearl said. "I like they way they've responded. A lot of times we could've folded our tents ... and didn't."

In addition to losing 21.5 points per game on offense, Lofton's absence is costing the Vols on defense. Reduced to eight healthy bodies, their full-court press isn't as feisty as it was when they had nine able bodies to rotate in and out.

"On the road, because of our depth and second-half fatigue, we can't go nuts pressing," Pearl said. "This is the shortest bench I've ever had in my career. Playing eight guys in this system is difficult. I'd like to go to nine or 10. But at some point you've got to cut it off based on what your confidence level is in the personnel."

To a certain extent, Pearl's hands are tied. He can't make Lofton's ankle heal. He can't make the other wings shoot with Lofton-like accuracy. He can't make the Vols' undersized big men grow taller, so they can compete better on the backboards. He can't make freshmen grow into veterans over night.

All Pearl can do is address UT's foul-shooting woes by ordering extra throws in practice each day ... and that hasn't been working lately. Tennessee doesn't get many free-throw opportunities, and it rarely exploits the opportunities it gets.

"We're shooting 60 percent in conference play," Pearl noted. "There's not a lot of margin for error. You're not going to get there (foul line) a lot on the road, so you'd better make the ones you can. When you're challenged to score, too, each free throw has greater meaning."

Especially when losing has become a habit.

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