published Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Road reversal: UT Vols need winning start to SEC play

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, left, questions an official in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in Cincinnati.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, left, questions an official in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in Cincinnati.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's basketball team needs the third time to be the charm in Baton Rouge tonight.

After losing their first two road games of the season at Xavier and Wichita State, the Volunteers open SEC play against LSU away from Knoxville, where they've struggled for the past couple of seasons.

In both road trips this season, the game was there for Tennessee's taking well into the second half.

After falling behind by 10, the Vols trailed Xavier's Musketeers by two with 13 minutes left and by four with eight minutes remaining in a season-opening defeat, and they led the unbeaten Shockers 44-41 with less than 10 minutes on the clock when Wichita State ripped off a 17-5 run to take control.

"The Xavier game, we got off to a slow start and fought back into the game," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. "We gave ourselves a chance to win the game down the stretch. I think more than anything, in that game, playing your first game on the road ... I think that was more of us mentally than the actual game itself.

"The Wichita State game, same scenario: You give yourself a chance to win down the stretch. We missed some layups, had great opportunities, didn't capitalize and they made the plays to win the game.

"Again, it's going back to the stretch where you're having the right guys in, understanding who needs the ball, where they need the ball in order for us to be successful."

Tennessee is just 7-17 on the road in Martin's three seasons, but all seven of those wins came in the SEC, including four in their final five last year. Of Tennessee's seven SEC road wins the last two seasons, only the first one, a 75-70 upset of eighth-ranked Florida in February 2012, came against a team with a winning league record.

"It's big for us," Jordan McRae said of opening league play against the Tigers. "This is the kind of game you want to have, being on the road the first game against a really good team. I think everybody's excited for it.

"I just think the biggest thing is we have to worry about ourselves," added McRae, who was named the SEC player of the week for the second time this season on Monday. "You can't have turnovers like that in a game like that, especially on the road. You've got to knock down free throws. Just the small things playing on the road normally wins games."

The Vols didn't pick up their first road wins until February in both seasons, and that won't work this time. They two big opportunity games at LSU and Kentucky in the next two weeks. For a team needing some quality wins to boost its NCAA tournament resume, another slow start away from Thompson-Boling Arena would be costly.

"You look at the first two years, we got better on the road as the season progressed, and that means we were better as a team," Martin said. "You hope that's the case and that we get off to a better start. For us, we've played two really good [host] teams with Xavier and Wichita State with great environments, so we'll be familiar with a hostile environment.

"Now it's just a matter of us doing the things we need to do to be successful on both ends of the floor."

During its modest three-game win streak, the Vols have played well offensively. They shot better than 50 percent and totaled nearly 70 assists in easy wins against Morehead State, Virginia and Tusculum. It's taking that efficiency on the road, where Tennessee has struggled offensively under Martin, that's the trick.

"I think we're definitely playing on the offensive end how we're capable of playing," McRae said. "I think we're moving the ball really well. We're getting out [in transition] a lot better than we were.

"We're getting more easy points. Jeronne [Maymon] and Jarnell [Stokes], they're getting doubled, they're throwing out of the post well, and as long as we're shooting wide-open shots, we're fine."

Against a team that Martin said is "very similar to us," the Vols need to notch a key road win.

"It's more mental," Martin said. "I talk to the guys all the time: It's just a different building, that's all. Our approach doesn't change."

The outcome needs to change, though.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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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