Winning ugly may not be as fun for the players or the spectators but the past two games will help the Big Orange significantly when SEC play begins in January. Winning ugly is the rule, rather than the exception, once league play begins. Almost every game will be up for grabs entering the last five minutes, and the team that finishes strongest generally wins. The Vols learned that lesson the hard way last winter.
"It's something we had trouble with last year - with the poise and finishing games out," All-America forward Tyler Smith said following the ETSU game. "So, we're happy to get a win tonight, as far as finishing strong."
Senior point guard Bobby Maze echoed those sentiments. He enjoys a 40-point blowout as much as the next guy but realizes that grinding out a hard-fought victory helps a team prepare for conference play in January and NCAA Tournament play in March.
"I think it's very important for guys to come together and grind out a win because this is what will happen in SEC play," he said. "A lot of times last year we lost games by one or two points."
He's right. The 2008-09 Vols suffered an overtime loss to Gonzaga, a one-point loss at Auburn (78-77), two-point losses to Memphis (54-52) and Oklahoma State (77-75) and three-point losses to Alabama (70-67) and Mississippi State (64-61). Those six games that came down to the final possession of regulation meant the difference between a 21-13 record and a 27-7 record.
"If we could've just ground it out, we could've gotten a better seed (for the NCAA Tournament), and who knows what would've happened?" Maze said. "Games like this (vs. ETSU) can make you who you are, and I'm just glad we were able to win."
The Vols committed a season-high 16 turnovers vs. the Boilermakers, compared to just 6 turnovers vs. ETSU. Maze believes that's the difference between winning a grind-out game and losing it.
"Don't turn the ball over; that's the key," he said. " Against Purdue we turned the ball over so many times ... most of 'em unforced turnovers. If we just cut down on the turnovers and have more possessions, then we win that game. Turnovers is the key."
Determination and hustle are critical in grind-out games, as well. The Vols allowed a shorter Purdue squad to match them 32-32 in rebounds. They let an undersized ETSU squad stick around Wednesday night by allowing the Bucs to come within two (34-32) on the boards.
"Some of 'em was loose balls - 50/50 balls is what Coach calls 'em - and they beat us to 'em," Smith said, frowning. "That's outhustling. We've got to get back to hustling for those rebounds.
"When we don't really beat people on the boards it (blame) goes to us because we're real long and athletic."
Being long and athletic is a plus. But the Vols lost a bunch of close games last year with a long and athletic lineup. Ultimately, it all comes down to this:
When a game is close entering the final minutes, will you grind your way to a tough victory or grind your teeth after a tough loss?