The Vols played top-ranked Memphis Feb. 23 on the Tigers' home floor. They came back 72 hours later to face No. 18 Vanderbilt on the Commodores' home floor. Next the Vols played Kentucky – a winner in nine of its previous 10 games – for the SEC East title on Sunday. Now the Big Orange faces another challenging road test – at two-time defending national champ Florida – on Wednesday night.
Sophomore Wayne Chism believes the Vols deserve a lot of credit for taking on such a murderer's row of opponents, noting: "I looked at our schedule and I thought, 'We're playing a mean schedule.' You can't take anything away from our schedule. It's a hard schedule."
It's so hard that head coach Bruce Pearl feels a little like a wide-eyed freshman overwhelmed by a seemingly endless string of important exams.
"It's been a tough test every night; this isn't an easy class," he said, shifting smoothly into an academic metaphor. "There are tests every week – research paper, mid-term, final. This is a 500 level (post-graduate) class."
When imposing tests are coming at such a dizzying pace, it pays to be the brightest kid in the class. The Vols can't claim that distinction, even in a metaphorical sense.
"They're not the smartest team, they're not the best team," Pearl noted. "But they're a pretty resilient team."
Playing the nation's No. 1 team, the No. 18 team, a red-hot Kentucky team and a two-time defending national champ – all in a span of 12 days, with three of the four on the road – is a daunting task. Tennessee has two wins and a loss thus far, and Pearl is pleased with that.
"What a week!" he said. "We win two out of three – beat the No. 1 ranked team on their floor, we lose at Vanderbilt in a last-possession game and we beat Kentucky for the SEC East championship at home. It was a pretty good week for Tennessee basketball."
Even so, the Vols dropped in both national polls. After ascending to No. 1 last week due to the win at Memphis, Tennessee slipped to No. 4 this week because of the loss at Vanderbilt.
The triumphs vs. Memphis (66-62) and Kentucky (63-60) bumped Tennessee's record to 8-1 in games decided by five points or less. The only tight loss to date was at Vandy 72-69.
Why are the Vols so tough to beat in close games?
"Our senior play," sophomore Tyler Smith said. "Our seniors are stepping up for us. They tell us in the huddle that this is their last year and they want an outright championship, so that's what we're trying to get for them."
Pearl may deserve some credit, too. The Vol coach stands 65-5 when his troops are ahead or tied entering a game's last five minutes, so he's obviously pushing the right buttons on a regular basis.
"There's confidence in him," Smith conceded, "but Coach is always telling us it's on us what we do between those lines."
Chism believes Tennessee's success at crunch time is a matter of poise. Basically, winning begets winning, so the more close games the Vols win, the more confident they are they'll win the next close game.
"We played through a whole bunch of close games last year and LOST a whole bunch of close games last year," he said. "Winning a whole bunch of close games this year is good for us, and we think that experience is carrying over for us into other games."