Tennessee's basketball Vols are making the turn toward the second half of their 18-game SEC schedule against lowly South Carolina today, and the front nine of the Vols' league schedule was full of ups and downs.
Here's a golf-style scorecard to recap how the first half of SEC play went for Tennessee.
Hole No. 1: at LSU (W, 68-50)
The Vols opened SEC play with a solid road win in the same building where Kentucky and Missouri later lost.
Hole No. 2: vs. Texas A&M (L, 57-56)
Score: Triple bogey
This easily is the Vols' worst loss of the season, at home to a team that lost to North Texas by 20 and to South Carolina by 28, and one that ultimately could knock them out of the NCAA tournament.
Hole No. 3: vs. Auburn (W, 78-67)
A ho-hum home win against a team that began SEC play 0-6.
Hole No. 4: at Kentucky (L, 74-66)
Not many teams are going to win in Rupp Arena -- the Wildcats have lost twice at home under fifth-year coach John Calipari -- and the Vols played fairly well.
Hole No. 5: vs. Arkansas (W, 81-74)
Tennessee took care of business against a poor road team that's 3-6 in the SEC.
Hole No. 6: at Florida (L, 67-41)
Score: Double bogey
Probably the toughest hole on the course, but Tennessee shanked its tee shot into the woods and found water with its approach in what probably was the ugliest performance under third-year coach Cuonzo Martin.
Hole No. 7: vs. Ole Miss (W, 86-70)
The Vols impressively bounced back from the Florida disaster with a wire-to-wire win against a team that had beaten them three straight times in the past two seasons.
Hole No. 8: at Alabama (W, 76-59)
Though this hole is playing easier this season, it's still one that has torched Tennessee in the past, but that was hardly the case this time.
Hole No. 9: at Vanderbilt (L, 64-60)
A tricky hole got the best of the Vols, who found the rough off the tee before a disappointing three-putt.
KNOXVILLE -- For every step or two forward, there's a trip, a stumble, a slide.
An up-and-down season for Tennessee men's basketball has carried into Southeastern Conference play, and the Volunteers enter the second half of the conference schedule -- and the homestretch to the postseason and Selection Sunday -- with a 5-4 record in a bland league.
A season that began with high hopes has turned into a disappointment, and now Tennessee enters a nine-game stretch to the SEC tournament in Atlanta that assuredly will have a big impact on the short- and long-term future of the program.
And while Cuonzo Martin rarely exudes frustration, the Vols' third-year coach did acknowledge that the inconsistencies that have plagued his veteran team have been maddening.
"It's tough," he said Friday afternoon before practice for today's visit from South Carolina. "But again, it's the leadership with your veteran guys to get locked in to do what we need to do to be successful. The game plan is in place. Follow the scouting report and stick to the script, like we say all the time. Normally it falls in line, but it's part of it.
"In most cases, when you've got seniors, you've got experienced guys, guys that have been in the trenches, they're battle-tested, [you expect some consistency], but it's probably not the case with this team. We've got experienced guys, we've got guys that are seniors, but they're still going through things as well."
After winning at LSU to start league play, Tennessee needed wins at home against Texas A&M and Auburn, two teams currently in the bottom half of the SEC with a combined overall record of 24-18, to head to Kentucky at 3-0 in the SEC. Instead, A&M's Aggies stunned the Vols on a last-second 3-point basket after Tennessee blew a 14-point halftime lead.
Following solid wire-to-wins against Ole Miss and at Alabama, the Vols needed wins against a Vanderbilt team with seven healthy scholarship players and the last-place Gamecocks this week to get to 7-3 in the league heading into third-ranked Florida's visit.
Instead, Tennessee fell behind by 12 and lost to the Commodores in Nashville on Wednesday.
Thrown in between those two stumbles was a 26-point beatdown at Florida.
Martin declined to reveal whether the ups and downs of his team, which starts three seniors and a junior, has surprised him.
"I go into every season expecting the unexpected, to be totally honest with you, because you never really know, and you take it one game at a time and one day at a time," he said. "I've been around teams that have young guys that played really well, and I've been around teams of veteran guys that had some stumbles along the way.
"It's just really one game at a time -- being consistent, finding your way and working with each other. The one thing these guys have is they have a passion for each other and for playing with each other."
Martin pointed to slow starts and poor shooting performances as reasons for the inconsistencies, and he mentioned more than once how he emphasizes to his players that they can't let poor shooting affect their intensity, energy and effort.
It's the fluctuations in those intangibles that's perhaps the most frustrating about this team for players, coaches and fans.
"Really, your guess is as good as mine," Martin said when asked about the games where the Vols' energy was lacking.
"I just think you've got to be ready to go from game to game and be locked in, because we don't change a lot," he said. "It's just how you get out the gates is the bigger thing. When we get out the gates slowly and dig ourselves a hole, you're fighting back in the game, but you have to exert so much energy to get back into it.
"That's the situation from game to game: You've got to be locked in and ready to go. It's a good question."
And it's one both the players and the coaching staff must address for Tennessee to get back on track and keep it there.
"It's on everybody," Martin said. "We're a family, and we're a team. It's always on me as the coach."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.