Last year's team stunned No. 7 Kentucky 76-74 on Feb. 6, then hit the skids. The Vols lost their next game at South Carolina, beat Arkansas, then lost four straight -- at Alabama, at Kentucky, vs. Vanderbilt and at Florida -- before nipping Georgia in the regular-season finale.
To recap: After beating UK, the Vols went 2-5 down the stretch, blowing any chance they had at postseason play.
This season has been a virtual replay. After beating No. 4 Florida 66-59 on Feb. 15, the Vols have suffered consecutive losses at South Carolina, vs. Alabama, at Kentucky and vs. LSU. If they split their two remaining regular-season games -- Wednesday vs. Mississippi State and Saturday at Vanderbilt -- the Vols will go 1-5 down the stretch, blowing any chance they have of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
All of this raises the question: Why is the Big Orange limping into March again?
Best guess: Tennessee is out of gas by the time it reaches the home stretch. Key players such as Ron Slay, Jon Higgins and C.J. Watson have been worn down by consistently playing nearly 40 minutes per game. As a result, they're a step slower than they were a month ago. That would explain why their defense -- which is all about energy and effort -- has suffered during the team's current four-game losing streak.
Watson is averaging 35.9 minutes per game, Slay 34.4 and Higgins 33.0. All appear to be mentally and physically fatigued.
Even in Saturday's 88-67 loss to LSU, Tennessee's top four players got little rest. Slay played 38 minutes, Watson 33, Thaydeus Holden 31 and Higgins 30. Only two reserves -- Elgrace Wilborn (22) and Stanley Asumnu (13) -- got double-digit minutes.
While it's true that Ray Mears rarely rested his starters during his amazing tenure as UT's head man, the game wasn't as physically demanding then as it is now. Prior to the Ernie & Bernie years, Mears' teams walked the ball up the floor, often taking a full minute before launching a shot. Moreover, the zone defense Mears' teams generally played wasn't nearly as taxing as the man-to-man defense utilized by most teams nowadays.
Bottom line: Depth is a much more valuable commodity today than it was three decades ago. A team that is tired in late February won't be playing many games in March.
So, unless the Vols get their legs back in a hurry, their season is likely to end soon.