Next for UT: Test or toast?

Nine games into the 2005-06 Southeastern Conference schedule, the Tennessee Vols were 8-1 and the toast of college basketball. Nine games into the 2006-07 schedule they are close to being just toast.

Though 16-8 overall, the Vols stand just 4-5 in league play. That means they desperately need a win today against Vanderbilt (1 p.m. tipoff at Thompson-Boling Arena) to bolster their hopes of landing an NCAA Tournament bid. The Commodores (16-7, 6-3) beat UT Jan. 10 in Nashville, so a sweep would just about ensure them a bid to the Big Dance.

Every game left on Tennessee's schedule is big, but today's is THE biggest.

"We've taken every game as a must-win," junior guard Jordan Howell said this week. "We know we're playing to get into the Tournament right now. We know 20 wins is the magic number, so we're playing every game like it's our last. A loss, and it might be. At the end of the season we might not be hearing our name called on Selection Sunday. Right now we're just playing for the Tournament."

So is Vanderbilt. Which team has the easier road down the home stretch? It's hard to say.

Vandy's remaining home games are against Florida (Feb. 17), Kentucky (Feb. 25), South Carolina (Feb. 28) and Arkansas (March 3). The Dores' remaining road games are at Mississippi State (Feb. 21) and at South Carolina (Feb. 28).

Tennessee's remaining home games are Kentucky (Feb. 13), Alabama (Feb. 21) and Florida (Feb. 27). The Vols have road tests remaining at South Carolina (Feb. 17), at Arkansas (Feb. 24) and at Georgia (March 3).

If Tennessee wins its remaining home games and loses its remaining road games the Vols will finish 20-11 overall and 8-8 in league play. That should get them an NCAA bid, regardless of what Vandy does the rest of the way.

"We've GOT to hold our home court," Howell said. "We've talked about that all season. We want to win eight games at home. That's our goal.

Tennessee looked much better than an 8-8 league team back in December, when the Vols were beating Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas en route to an 8-0 month. They have stumbled badly since then, however, especially once Chris Lofton sprained his ankle Jan. 20 against South Carolina. You wonder: Can the Vols get back their December form?

"I think we're getting there, slowly but surely," guard JaJuan Smith said. "When Chris gets 100 percent, then it's going to be wide open when he makes his shots in transition, then we can get it going on defense."

As well as Tennessee played in December, Smith believes the team hasn't reached its potential.

"I still don't think we've played our best ball," he said. "The key for us is to keep getting better every game. We've just got to try to get hot."

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