Road redemption

The Tennessee Vols are what basketball analyst Jerry Palm calls "homecourt heroes" – a team that beats everybody at home but beats nobody on the road. Since the 2007 NCAA Tournament is not being played at Thompson-Boling Arena, he says this will hurt UT during the seeding process.

That's why it is crucial that the Vols – 18-8 overall but 0-5 in SEC road games – beat South Carolina Saturday in Columbia. The Gamecocks (12-12 overall, 2-9 SEC) are the weakest team left on Tennessee's schedule and clearly vulnerable to an invading foe. Carolina already lost SEC home games to Florida (84-50), Kentucky (87-49), Auburn (80-75) and Georgia (73-54).

By comparison, Tennessee has been invincible at home. The Vols are 14-0 there this season, with signature wins against Memphis (76-58), Texas (111-105), Vanderbilt (84-57) and Kentucky (89-85). The Big Orange has been the Small Orange on the road, however, dropping SEC decisions at Vanderbilt (82-81), at Auburn (83-80), at Ole Miss (83-69), at Kentucky (76-57) and at Florida (94-78).

Three of UT's five remaining regular-season outings are away games – at South Carolina (Saturday), at Arkansas (Feb. 24) and at Georgia (March 3) – so the Vols still have a chance to earn some road redemption. The obvious question: After sweeping LSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky on their home floor, are they ready to win on the road?

"I think we're a lot more ready," freshman Duke Crews says. "We've put together three straight wins here. Confidence means a whole lot on the road. If you go in somebody else's gym with confidence, that's the best thing in the world."

"I think we're pretty ready," adds Wayne Chism, another freshman. "Everybody's playing together. We've got Chris (Lofton) back, and he's playing better."

A sprained ankle caused Lofton to miss Tennessee's two most recent road games, and the Vols were drilled each time – losing by 19 at Kentucky and by 16 at Florida. As UT's leading scorer and one of the team's few veterans, the 6-2 junior guard is vital to the Vols' chances of winning Saturday in Columbia.

"We've just got to keep our intensity up," Lofton says. "We need a road win. We don't have any yet, and that would be a big one for us."

Crews agrees, noting: "It's real important, especially going down the stretch and closing out the season. A road win would be really big for us right now."

The Vols have just one road win all year – a 77-67 defeat of Louisiana Lafayette back on Nov. 27 – but they've come maddeningly close several times. They lost by one at Vandy on a tip-in at the buzzer. They lost by two at Ohio State on two missed 1-and-1s in the final 30 seconds. They squandered a big second-half lead and lost by three at Auburn.

"It's hard to win at someone else's gym," junior guard JaJuan Smith notes. "We're 0-5 on the road (in SEC games), so it's going to be a big challenge. It's been an up-and-down season but we're looking forward to this.

"The three wins were a big boost, especially beating the number 18 team in the country (Kentucky). I think that will give us a lot of confidence, and you're going to see a different Tennessee team on the road."

Perhaps he's right. Maybe the Vols will show a new look en route to victory Saturday in Columbia. If not, they will solidify their reputation as homefloor heroes.

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