KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee men's basketball team is 7-1 in first games after losses this season.
That would seem to be a solid mark, but Jordan McRae doesn't quite see it that way.
"That's not a percentage that we're proud of," the Volunteers' leading scorer said before Friday's practice, "but after a loss, you know, your focus has to get better, because you don't want that first loss to take you into another one."
With nine losses already as this season heads into mid-February, the Vols hardly can afford many more, and while they have been good in bounce-back games so far in Cuonzo Martin's third year as coach, all but one of those eight games were at home and four of the wins came against South Carolina-Upstate, Morehead State, Auburn and South Carolina.
Today Tennessee plays at Missouri, which has lost only three times at home under third-year coach Frank Haith. The Vols expended a lot of energy and emotion in Tuesday night's 67-58 home loss to third-ranked Florida, but they have had to time to turn the page.
"Florida was a tough loss for us," said McRae, who scored 17 points in the loss. "We had a day off after the game. If you wanted to cry about it, you had the day to do that, but yesterday at practice everybody came ready to work. We didn't really watch the game. We went right to Missouri."
Like the Vols, the Tigers enter the season's homestretch squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. Though neither team faces Kentucky or Florida again in the regular season, Tennessee and Missouri meet twice, so both games figure to weigh heavily in regard to their respective postseason hopes.
"You can't really psyche yourself out about it," Vols guard Josh Richardson said. "You have to go out there and play hard. It'd be a big win for us when we get it, if we can get one.
"We can't add any extra pressure on ourselves, because guys will try to start forcing it or negative stuff like that."
Missouri won its first 10 games of the season -- including a nonconference home win against UCLA -- before an upset loss to Illinois and a disappointing start to SEC play. The Tigers lost at home to Georgia in their conference opener and slipped up at Vanderbilt and LSU.
Kentucky won in Columbia, Mo., and Missouri's losing streak increased to three with losses at Ole Miss and Florida before Thursday's night one-point home win against Arkansas.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has yet to put together a win streak longer than two games in SEC play, but the Vols have followed their four previous SEC losses -- including the clunkers against Texas A&M and at Vanderbilt -- with wins by an average of 13 points.
"You can't dwell on it," Martin said. "As much as you want it to linger on and sulk in it, you have to bounce back as fast as you can. That's one thing about league play: It's not once every two weeks you play a game. You've got to bounce back quickly. Learn from it, watch film on it, get it out the way and move forward. I think that's the biggest key."
The Vols' veterans have been through the grind of an 18-game, two-times-per-week league schedule, and that helps explain why they've been solid after losing games and makes their inconsistency in an average SEC more frustrating.
"I think that's part of it, and that's always been my approach as a coach," Martin said. "You've got to get it out of your system as fast as you can. I think sometimes you linger on those losses, and it'll affect you in the next game. It happened, let's learn from it: what took place, what do we need to do to get better and keep moving."
With the postseason fast approaching, there are no other options.
"We're down to the last six or seven games, so we're trying to trying to definitely win out," McRae said. "That's what everybody's trying to do. Everybody's going to be battling and trying to win their last few games."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
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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