KNOXVILLE—A three-game losing streak and the realization that a primary goal is now out of reach usually qualify as sources of frustration.
Don't tell that to the Tennessee basketball Volunteers.
"Some guys get punched and don't get up," UT coach Bruce Pearl said after Tuesday's practice in preparation for tonight's Southeastern Conference game against visiting South Carolina. "We've been punched a few times. We've got to get up, spit the blood out, a tooth or two, and get up and fight.
"How frustrated do you get when you get hit? I think the biggest thing is there's a big difference between frustration and being discouraged. This team is not discouraged. Disappointed, certainly. We're not a happy basketball team."
With Saturday's last-possession loss at Florida, the Volunteers (15-10, 5-5) fell three games behind the Gators in the East division with six games remaining. Pearl admitted Monday the focus now is playing for postseason seeding, though that shouldn't change the Vols' collective mindset.
"Six games we must win: It's pretty much all or nothing right now," freshman forward Tobias Harris said. "We lost those three games but we were playing pretty good basketball, so that doesn't say much, but as a team we know we just need to come out here and win.
"I don't think we're too frustrated, but we just know that these next six games are games we need to win."
Said senior center Brian Williams: "We're mentally where we need to be. We've got to be physical right now, we've got to be dominant in the post and we've got to play defense. Even though we're coming off a loss, we played great basketball.
"My goal right now is not to play on the first day of the SEC tournament. Losing is not an option no more."
The offensive struggles of UT's point guards have frustrated Pearl and forced him to tinker with the rotation. Though Melvin Goins, who practiced Tuesday after missing Monday's workout, will start as usual against the Gamecocks (13-10, 4-6), reserve guard Skylar McBee will take Trae Golden's minutes as Goins' backup as he has at times earlier this season.
Aside from a lopsided loss at Kentucky, UT played well enough to beat Florida and Alabama during its three-game skid but was doomed both times by missed opportunities at winning baskets and mishandlings of last-second possessions.
That hasn't gotten the Vols down on themselves, though.
"We've not won some close games, but this is not a discouraged basketball team," Pearl said. "This basketball team is still in position to do almost everything it wanted to do at the start of the season. That doesn't mean we haven't got an awful lot to play for. There's some terrific opportunities in front of us."
If any UT player has a reason to be frustrated, it's Harris, the fantastic freshman who struggled in UT's two games last week while fighting through a lingering ankle injury and increased attention from opponents.
He scored half of his 10 points in garbage time in the loss to Kentucky and played just 20 minutes against Florida after picking up two quick first-half fouls. But Harris said he's not frustrated himself, and as UT's second-leading scorer and rebounder he still has lofty aspirations.
"I'd rather," he said, "win a national championship than an SEC championship or any of that, so where we are now, it means a little bit right now, but in the long run where we end up the in the [NCAA] tournament's going to mean the most to us."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...