Quest for redemption

The Tennessee Basketball Vols return their top seven players from 2008-09. They are ranked No. 10 nationally in preseason. They destroyed exhibition opponents North Alabama (117-79) and Lincoln Memorial (97-58).

So, why aren't these guys happy? Because they're riding a two-game losing streak.

Never mind that the two games were played last March. The Vols remain annoyed that their 2008-09 season ended with back-to-back losses to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament finals and to Oklahoma State in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA loss, in particular, continues to haunt one Vol.

"I'm never going to forget that game," senior point guard Bobby Maze said. "That's going to be with me for the rest of my life."

Head coach Bruce Pearl remains somewhat frustrated by his team's faltering finish last March, as well.

"The last two times we played games were in the SEC Tournament championship and the NCAA Tournament, and neither one of those went the way we wanted 'em to," he noted. "I think that's been a great motivator for the entire offseason and the preseason."

Disappointment can be a great motivator, and the Vols certainly seem motivated after their lackluster outings in the final two games of 2008-09. How motivated? Fans will get a chance to judge for themselves when the Vols host Austin Peay Friday night at 9 in the regular-season opener.

"I think we're ready," Pearl said. "I think we've improved. I think we're a little better at every position. I think it should translate into being a little better at this time than we were a year ago."

Maze thinks so, too. He believes the Vols understand this year that every game is potentially critical, whether it's played in November or March.

"I think back to the (2008-09) games we should've won and didn't - the Auburn game, the Gonzaga games, the Memphis game," he said. "Those put us in a position where we had to play Oklahoma State in the first round."

Early-season losses can affect a team's ranking and its confidence, as well as its NCAA seeding in March.

"We kind of got embarrassed by Temple early in the season, got knocked out of the rankings," Maze recalled. "So now we're taking 'em one game at a time and not overlooking, so we'll be in a better position when it comes to March Madness."

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