KNOXVILLE — Whether in text messages, Twitter posts or questions from reporters, it's hard for the Tennessee basketball Volunteers to hide from their predicament.
The Vols are very much on the NCAA tournament bubble, and whether they'll admit or not, they know the situation.
It's up to them to seize the moment.
"I don't think it's a distraction," forward Jarnell Stokes said Monday before practice. "I think that just gives us motivation to know how big the NCAA tournament is. We have a little more to prove."
But there's not much time to do so.
At Auburn tonight the Vols will face a Tigers team that's last in the Southeastern Conference in Ratings Percentage Index. A loss would be near-fatal for the Vols' NCAA hopes -- they'd have to win the SEC tournament -- and a win would do little to change the importance of Saturday's visit from Missouri in the regular-season finale. Positioning for the SEC tournament also remains at stake.
"We know how it is," Tennessee's leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "We were in the exact same spot as last year, so we definitely know what we've got to do. We don't like to label games as must-win, but these next two games we've got to win."
According to the bracket projections of ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi and CBS analyst Jerry Palm, Tennessee began Tuesday as the last team in the field of 68 even after Saturday's loss at Georgia.
While they may not be hitting "refresh" on their laptops between practice and classes, most of the Vols have an idea where they stand.
"It's hard in your interactions with people and people around campus and people asking you about [it]," guard Skylar McBee said. "That's a conversation that you're going to get asked all the time. I think I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I didn't know where we were at, because you're having interactions with people and that's something they're going to talk about.
"I think as a team we do a really good job of not looking ahead. As long as we're winning, the rest will take care of itself down the road. That's something we can't control."
Tennessee cannot control which teams steal bids as smaller conference tournaments begin this week, and the Vols also have no power to make their SEC bubble brethren -- Kentucky, Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas, to name four -- win or lose their games this week.
They have to worry about their own business and use a potential distraction as motivation.
"It could be a lot of both," said McBee, a senior. "I think it depends on which way you look at it. I think it motivates us that we are trying to get to the NCAA tournament just like every other team in our league.
"If you look down the road and it's affecting the way that you play because you're worrying more about the NCAA tournament than you're worried about the next, I think it can be a distraction."
Nobody can afford those at this time of year, particularly teams playing for their postseason lives.
"It's just winning ballgames," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I don't know if there's anything you can learn from [last season] outside of winning basketball games at this point. However you win, just win them.
"You have two games left, and you've won six out of the last seven. For us, it's trying to win a road game ... then coming home and trying to win a home game against a very talented [Missouri] team, and you go from there. It's all we can control at this point."
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 ...
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