KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee Volunteers' revenge week isn't over. Now they're trying to salvage it.
As in Cuonzo Martin's first season as coach last year, Tennessee is 1-4 in SEC basketball play, and today's game against visiting Alabama looms large as the Vols try to overcome the poor league start again.
"It's another game we need," senior forward Kenny Hall said after Tennessee's 62-56 loss at 23rd-ranked Ole Miss on Thursday night. "They're coming in our home, and we need to protect our floor and get this win."
It's been 15 seasons since Tennessee last began 1-5 in SEC play, and that 1997-98 team, in its first season under Jerry Green, caught fire after a slow start. Those Vols won eight of their next 10 and reached the program's first NCAA tournament in nine years as an eighth seed that lost in the first round.
Last season, Tennessee won nine of 11 down the stretch to earn the second seed in the SEC tournament, but the Vols won't get the spark of a midseason addition like Jarnell Stokes provided a year ago.
"I think they're just different teams," Martin said earlier this week.
Turnovers and little mistakes in key moments down the stretch of games have led to the Vols' 1-4 start. They fumbled away their last meeting against the Crimson Tide two weeks ago on the road with turnovers and failed to stop Kentucky in the final seven minutes of that loss.
Thursday night, Tennessee failed to grab a rebound that led to a dagger 3-pointer by their nemesis, Ole Miss sharpshooter Marshall Henderson, before Jordan McRae and Armani Moore each missed a pair of free throws with the Vols trailing 58-56.
"You come in here trying to win a ballgame, have an opportunity to win the game and come up short," Martin said afterward. "It makes you think about key plays, missed free throws and turnovers. We didn't get a key stop."
Tennessee's four SEC losses were against three teams who have combined to start 12-3 in league play. Though the Vols' schedule takes a more manageable turn after today's crucial game, the SEC's struggles this season won't help Tennessee's low RPI. The Vols began the week 99th in the important ranking index.
Inconsistent individual performances have led to inconsistent team performances, and Tennessee's lack of a true point guard has hurt it late in games. After holding Ole Miss, the nation's third-highest scoring team, to 17 percent shooting in the first half, the Vols allowed the Rebels to shoot 54 percent and score 44 points after halftime.
McRae scored 26 points and played 39 minutes, but he turned the ball over nine times as the Vols' primary ball-handler, a role he's almost required to play even though it doesn't suit him.
Yet Tennessee's biggest problem has been down the stretch of close games, and the Vols can expect a similar encounter with Alabama having won three of its SEC games by eight combined points.
"I don't think it's a lack of confidence," Hall said. "I know we have the confidence to finish it. It's just the willpower.
"We just have to stay mentally strong and mentally tough to take over at the end of games."
Said Martin: "It's been the same the last few games, and we just need to keep our heads up."