After sweep by Vandy, Vols trying to focus

It's a hard time to be an optimistic Tennessee basketball fan, at least on the men's side of the game. After being swept by Vanderbilt (18-5, 7-2) for the first time since 2004, and first time ever under coach Bruce Pearl, the Volunteers now sit at 18-5, 6-3 in the conference, at a disadvantaged third place in the Southeastern Conference race. Go "Inside" for the latest.

It's a hard time to be an optimistic Tennessee basketball fan, at least on the men's side of the game.

After being swept by Vanderbilt (18-5, 7-2) for the first time since 2004, and first time ever under coach Bruce Pearl, the Volunteers now sit at 18-5, 6-3 in the conference, at a disadvantaged third place in the Southeastern Conference race.

What began in January as a race to defend an SEC regular season championship has turned into a race to defend a team's pride.

It's hard to imagine such a strong Kentucky team faltering down the road and surrendering an SEC championship to a churning Vanderbilt squad, or a creeping Tennessee.

With a trip to Lexington looming, where the No. 3-ranked Kentucky Wildcats wait, Tennessee fans can't imagine how it could get any worst.

Just take a look at the schedule and your stomach will turn.

Starting with Saturday's game versus Kentucky, four out of the final seven games of the season are on the road, including trips to Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State.

Many Vols fans will feel winded just looking up that hill.

Home games against Georgia, Arkansas and Kentucky don't necessarily provide welcoming homecomings.

But it happens all the time right? Teams suffer through downtimes and battle back, regroup and get hot. It's basketball.

We saw it earlier in the season with this team, following a January 1 arrest which negated four scholarship players, senior Tyler Smith, junior Brian Williams, sophomore Cameron Tatum and junior Melvin Goins, seemingly securing this Tennessee team's fate as a thin team bound to struggle through a thick conference race.

What fans received was a shocking, motivational performance; including a home-court toppling of No.1-ranked Kansas 76-68, part of a five-game winning streak that gave Vols fans the impression that not all was lost.

A movie-script story, a team of heroes off the pine, once bench players and now superstars.

Yet the streak would end, at the hands of Georgia, a team that finished 12-20 last season and last in the SEC Eastern division.

A mere stumble, the orange faithful grumbled, loser's luck against an unsuspecting Volunteer team.

Then reality really kicked the Big Orange in the ribs, as a bigger, deeper Vanderbilt team came into Thompson-Boling Arena on a nine-game winning streak, which extended with an 85-76 win.

The Volunteers regained their footing, winning a much-needed conference bout with Florida 61-60, then closing out a close contest with an SEC-worst LSU team on the road 59-54.

A dominating 79-53 win over South Carolina at home seemed to rejuvenate season aspirations to their previous level, before Vanderbilt again prescribed Tennessee with a dosage of reality, this time at Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn.

That reality is a thin bench, lack of post play, poor outside shooting and inconsistent scoring leaders, a lethal mixture that has plagued the Volunteers in close contests following the bench reshuffle.

Tennessee is technically 5-4 on the road this season, three of those road games coming in the Paradise Jam held in the Virgin Islands in late November. Not really an impressive road record for a bidding SEC contender.

This Tennessee roster looks completely different now than it did in November and the season's aspirations look equally as dissimilar.

With an already strong record nationally, this team will undoubtedly limp to a finish, strong or not, and secure an NCAA tournament bid.

Some might say the challenging close to the season, coupled with the closing conference tournament, could provide the gritty preparation needed for a strong push in March.

However one thing is for sure, we've seen the heart and poise of this bench already, displayed most clearly against Kansas on January 10, just nine days after the New Year's Day incident.

Vanderbilt has gone outside of its realm, humbling the Volunteers in an area other than academics, all while dropping the Big Orange faithful to a low emotionally.

Hey, perhaps another setback is just what this team needs?


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