UT head coach Bruce Pearl learned from last year's experience, however. The lesson: You'd better have a full tank of gas heading into March. Apparently, Tennessee does. The Vols exhibited tremendous energy in knocking off No. 5 Florida 86-76 Tuesday night for their sixth win in the last seven games.
From all appearances, Tennessee is playing its best basketball when it matters most. Asked if his team is peaking, however, Pearl ducked the question.
"We're playing well," he said. "Somehow we're fresh. We're hungry."
Senior Dane Bradshaw agreed that the Vols are a lot fresher heading into March of 2007 than they were heading into March of 2006.
"We seem like we're fresh out there," he said, "and we're starting to get everybody back relatively healthy."
One reason Tennessee is fresher than at this time last year is depth. After playing just seven guys in 2006, Pearl is dividing the minutes among nine guys this year. That means the starters aren't being taxed as heavily.
"Nine guys are playing," Pearl said. "Nine guys are contributing. Nine guys are scoring and rebounding…. We clearly have more depth, and that's a factor."
It's a factor defensively, even more so than offensively. Starting guard JaJuan Smith averages 27 minutes per game – just three more than he averaged as a reserve last year. His energetic defensive play totally disrupted Florida point guard Taurean Green (2-of-11 shooting, 5 turnovers) Tuesday night.
"Do you think JaJuan could give the kind of defensive effort he's been giving us if he had to play 32 or 33 minutes? No," Pearl said. "So, he doesn't take possessions off, and he does all of those little things for us."
Depth isn't the only reason Tennessee looks fresher than last year at this time. Success provides a shot of adrenalin near the end of a long season.
"It feels a lot different because we're winning," All-America guard Chris Lofton said. "When we're losing, it's bad news. But we've been winning lately, and the sky's the limit."