Pressure still the same for bubble-bound UT Vols

Pressure still the same for bubble-bound UT Vols

February 13th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes (5) battles for a rebound in his NCAA basketball game against Florida in Knoxville in this Feb. 11, 2014, file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Seven games remain before Tennessee heads to Atlanta for the SEC men's basketball tournament the second week of March.

The Volunteers would help themselves by winning most if not all of them.

After losing at home to third-ranked Florida in Knoxville on Tuesday night, Tennessee has run out of opportunities for the kind of win that would solidify its NCAA tournament case, and aside from two games against Missouri, plays five games where a loss would be more damaging than a win would be beneficial.

Yet the Vols aren't thinking that way.

"I feel pressure every game," forward Jarnell Stokes said after scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the 67-58 loss to the Gators. "Going into every game I feel a lot of pressure. I can't sleep at nights for games like this, and I also couldn't sleep at night when we were playing against South Carolina, because I feel like my team needs me every game.

"I don't want to drop any games against South Carolina as well as against Florida. We have Missouri coming up. It's definitely going to be another dogfight, definitely because we're on the road, but we should come out with a lot of fire."

A win at Missouri, where the disappointing Tigers typically are hard to beat, likely would register as Tennessee's best road win of the season.

After Saturday's game, though, Tennessee should be favored in its final six games, though the unpredictability of this year's team suggests winning all of them is a bit premature.

In the season's final three weeks, the Vols play at Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn -- three teams that entered Wednesday night's four-game SEC slate with a 10-20 league record -- and face Georgia, Vanderbilt and Missouri at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"For us it's one game at a time," said the Vols' third-year coach Cuonzo Martin, "and that's the only thing you can control."

Tennessee began the week just inside the top 50 of the RPI, and facing two other top-50 teams certainly won't hurt that number. Virginia's 11-1 start in the ACC has made the Vols' 35-point thrashing of the Cavaliers in late December look better. Texas A&M remains Tennessee's only sub-100 loss of the season.

While Tennessee's numbers are strong, the Vols are squarely on the bubble, out of room for error and out of chances to notch a big-time win, which will make letting an upset of Florida slip away even more frustrating.

After the Gators outscored Tennessee 12-4 in the game's final 4:32, Martin was asked how good Florida is this season.

"I would put 'em with a team similar to the Kentucky team with Anthony Davis [in 2012]," he replied. "Now you don't have the caliber guy of Anthony Davis, but they're very similar with their defense and their approach. They probably don't have the big name, so to speak, as far as first-round draft picks and all that, but they've got very talented players.

"They do a tremendous job of playing together and feeding off each other."

Tennessee is 7-1 after a loss this season, with the only defeat coming at home against North Carolina State following a road loss to unbeaten Wichita State.

"It's tough, but I mean Florida is a good team and they just finished the game better than us," Vols guard Josh Richardson said. "We just have to bounce back quick. Every game we should approach with a sense of urgency."

This time of the year requires it.

"We're definitely well aware that we have to win some games because our goal is to make it to the tournament and see what happens from there, but must-win, I wouldn't say that," Stokes said. "We were going all the way back to certain games, like N.C. State, saying that was a must-win. We're still in a good position."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.