Vols want to 'Dance'

Tennessee basketball fans expected the team to rely heavily on freshmen this season. They expected growing pains. They expected the performance level to be erratic. They just didn't expect the Vols to be "on the bubble" with March approaching.

That's where the Big Orange finds itself, though. Tennessee (16-10 overall, 7-5 SEC) is no lock for an NCAA Tournament bid heading into tonight's game with Mississippi State (17-10, 7-5), another bubble team. Tipoff is set for 9 o'clock at Thompson-Boling Arena with TV coverage provided by Raycom.

Tennessee has made the last three NCAA Tournament fields, and not one player on the Vol roster has played on a team that had to sit out The Dance. Thus, none of them even conceived of the possibility when this season began last November.

"I never did see that," junior post Wayne Chism said. "It's going to be hard if you don't get in there. It's going to be tough to be here that long, and this would be the first time if I don't make it. We're going to have to stick through this as a team, and the coaches are going to have to stick with us."

Whether the fans stick with the Vols remains to be seen. Like head coach Bruce Pearl, many UT supporters are greatly perturbed after watching this team go through the motions in lopsided losses at Ole Miss (81-65) and Kentucky (77-58) last week.

"You've got to be focused," Chism conceded. "We didn't have no focus at Kentucky or Ole Miss or Auburn. That's why we got beat. If we stay as a team, like we did against Georgia and Vandy, we can be a good team.

"We are not playing as a good team right now. We are not playing together. If we get back on the same page, we can beat any team in the league."

None of the Vols appeared to be on the same page last weekend at Lexington. The UT performance was so bad that there might be a hangover-effect in tonight's outing with Mississippi State.

"The team and the coaches cannot sit back and keep thinking about the Kentucky game and how embarrassing it was," Chism said. "We've got to move on to Mississippi State. We've got to move on and win these next couple of games to get in the Tournament. It's going to be hard to do if you want to sit back and keep thinking about the game you just lost."

Of course, Tennessee could turn the negative experience at Lexington into a positive by ratcheting up its intensity tonight.

"I think you look at that (UK) game as a motivation," Vol freshman Scotty Hopson said. "You look at it as an embarrassment, a situation we don't want to be in again. You try to get past that and win the next one."

Perhaps the humbling beat-downs at Ole Miss and Kentucky will serve to motivate the Vols, bringing about a much-needed change in attitude.

"It's going to have to change," Chism conceded, "or we won't make it nowhere."

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