KNOXVILLE — There's any number of discussions and debates as to why Tennessee's basketball team sits at .500 in the SEC and on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble with four regular-season games remaining.
Just don't expect the Volunteers to have any of them in the locker room or on the team plane to Starkville, Miss.
For the players, how Tennessee's season got to this point isn't nearly as important as winning out heading into the SEC tournament in two weeks, and that starts tonight at Mississippi State.
"It's too late now," leading scorer Jordan McRae said before Tuesday afternoon's practice. "We can't change anything, so we've got to roll with the hand that's dealt."
It's a hand the Vols have dealt themselves, though Texas A&M's Antwan Space has done his part, too, with two game-winning last-second 3s in the Aggies' sweep of Tennessee.
The Vols have played one of the season's toughest schedules -- they have faced top-ranked Florida twice and visited second-ranked and unbeaten Wichita State -- but failed to capitalize with enough quality wins to solidify an NCAA tournament spot.
There were, too, the slip-ups at Vanderbilt and to North Carolina State at home, plus a loss to 20-8 UTEP that cost Tennessee a chance to face Iowa and either Villanova or Kansas -- teams with RPIs of 34, 4 and 1.
"We've done the same thing for two years, and the last two years we haven't really played up to our potential at the end, but we feel like we can make the most out of it," said Vols guard Josh Richardson, who left Tuesday's practice after hurting his hand but returned and is "fine" for tonight, according to coach Cuonzo Martin.
"We've just been there the last two years, so it's nothing new. We've just got to keep playing hard, and we hope it'll all come together."
It won't come together if Tennessee loses to Mississippi State, the team with the SEC's lowest RPI. The Bulldogs are on a nine-game losing streak and haven't won in a month, but despite a severe lack of interior size and depth, Rick Ray's team has guards who could give the Vols trouble.
After Texas A&M found driving lanes and shot 59 percent in the second half last Saturday, the Vols worked on their 1-3-1 zone defense Tuesday and could use it against a smaller team.
"They have a lot of quick guards, and they're a really scrappy team and they play really hard every night," Richardson said. "It's not going to be an easy game. It's going to be a tough game just like every other one.
"They seem to be pretty streaky, but we can't let them get off to an early run because they're one of those teams that you can't really let get going, or they can really make you pay for it."
After Martin answered questions about how he handles the negativity surrounding Tennessee's program and his own job security, both McRae and Richardson addressed their own methods of dealing with such distractions.
"Right now, at this stage, I think it's best for all of us to really stay off Twitter and Instagram and things like that and just try to stay away from all that stuff," McRae said. "At the end of the day, we're the only people in practice, so we just have to keep on working."
For the most part, the Vols don't appear to be distracted by the external chatter.
"We don't really pay it any mind," Richardson said. "We're just worried about our next game. We're worried about what's in our gym and not what's going on in the media or the public or anything.
"We've just got to know where our heads are at. I don't know about the other guys. We've never talked about it or anything. I know for me it's easy to not pay attention to it and know what's important."
What's important is that the Vols handle their business on the road tonight.
"It's just something that has to be done," McRae said. "We've got to win these last four games. We feel confident because we're more than capable of winning these last four.
"I just think at this point, we know what we have to do, especially for the seniors. This is our last go-round. We have a really good team and a chance to make some noise, and I think everybody really wants to do that."
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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