"We were playing for an SEC East championship last year, and we played every game like it could be our last," head coach Bruce Pearl recalled. "That's what you have to do at this time of year. The seniors begin to count 'em down and realize how many games we have left."
With the 2009-10 Vols standing 6-4 in SEC play, the coach is trying to get them to adopt the same sort of "each game is precious" approach.
"One of the things I did ask the team at Kentucky - and I will continue to do this for a while - is 'Let's all treat this season like the seniors are treating it.' I asked the rest of the players to make sure it matters as much to them here in February as it does to the seniors," Pearl said. "I think that's the key to trying to get to playing your best basketball at the end of the season."
The 2008-09 Vols played some of their best basketball at the end of the regular season. Following a 77-58 blowout loss at Rupp Arena, they beat Mississippi State at home, then upset Florida and South Carolina on the road. After clinching a tie for the SEC East title, an unmotivated UT squad dropped the regular-season finale to Alabama but bounced back to beat the Tide and Auburn in the league tourney before bowing in the finals.
Frankly, Tennessee's chances of repeating last year's big finish are not good ... mostly because the six games left on the regular-season schedule are imposing. The Vols host two teams - Georgia (Wednesday night) and Kentucky (Feb. 27) - who handed them double-digit road losses. They host SEC West leader Arkansas (March 3) and they visit South Carolina (Feb. 20), Florida (Feb. 23) and Mississippi State (March 6).
"We're all challenged right now," Pearl conceded. "What you're looking for is step-up. What happened last year after Kentucky? We stepped up. Our backs were against the wall and we stepped up.
"You can make an argument (this year) that our backs are against the wall."
Even if the Vols could sweep their six remaining regular-season games to finish 12-4 in SEC play, they are unlikely to catch SEC East leader Kentucky, which stands 9-1. But there's still plenty to play for besides the division title ... a good seed in the NCAA Tournament, for instance.
"The best teams in the league have got to keep winning in order to make the NCAA tournament," Pearl said. "We've got to keep winning in order to make the tournament. And in order to keep winning, we've got to step up. We're in good position but we've got to close it out."
The Vols carry a two-game losing streak into Wednesday night's game against visiting Georgia, having suffered double-digit losses at Vanderbilt (90-71) and at Kentucky (73-62) in the past seven days. If they have more in them, they need to bring it out right now.
"Can we get better? There have been some challenges to getting better over the last few weeks, as relates to the number of guys we've had in practice," Pearl said. "It's hard to go to Vanderbilt and Kentucky and get better. It was hard to get better last week."
If the Vols are to mount a strong finishing kick - as they did last year - they'll need to start it Wednesday night vs. Georgia.
"We've got to bounce back and win that basketball game," Pearl said. "It's time to play like an NCAA basketball team. It's time to understand that we're battling for our lives right now."