KNOXVILLE - Tennessee will try to do something it's not done this basketball season at Auburn on Wednesday: win a third SEC game in a row.
The Volunteers have just a pair of two-game winning streaks in league play this season -- "That's crazy," Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes said when told that fact after a 76-38 win against Vanderbilt on Saturday -- but they enter the final week of the regular season with a potential double-bye in the SEC tournament and their NCAA tournament hopes on the line.
A team that's been up and down all season long now must find some consistency.
"We can't let history repeat itself, I guess," Stokes continued. "We have to be very aware of what's at stake. Auburn has two very good scorers, and they have a 7-footer who can blocks shots. We have to understand that we're coming to their home floor, and anyone can lose any given night in the SEC."
Following a stretch where it lost three of four, including an overtime loss at Texas A&M that completed the Aggies' sweep of the Vols, Tennessee responded with a 2-0 week by winning at lowly Mississippi State and hammering the Commodores.
The Vols can earn one of the top four seeds in the SEC tournament, meaning they wouldn't play their first game in Atlanta until March 14, with wins against the Tigers on Wednesday and fellow NCAA tournament bubble team Missouri in Knoxville on Saturday.
Tennessee is tied with Arkansas at 9-7 in the league, and both the Vols and Razorbacks are a game back of third-placed Georgia. Since Tennessee beat both of those teams, the Vols would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with each.
If the Bulldogs lose once -- they host Mississippi State on Wednesday and go to LSU on Saturday -- and Tennessee wins both of its games this week, the Vols would be the third seed in the SEC tournament.
Of course, asking Tennessee to take that spot is asking it to string multiple wins together, something the Vols haven't done since winning four straight at the beginning of the year.
"My job as a coach is to do my job and prepare your team to be ready for a game," third-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. "We practice a certain way, we do things in practice, we shoot shots, we go over scouting reports. That's probably 70 percent of the stuff we do in practice all the time, and the other 30 percent depends on the team that we're playing against.
"You talk about it as a coach and hope your guys understand, but more importantly, you hope your guys realize this is what it takes to be successful, if you do these things consistently."
Though Tennessee clamped down defensively on Vanderbilt on Saturday, that end of the floor has been an issue for the Vols on the road. In its last four road games, Tennessee has allowed its opponent to shoot better than 50 percent in five of eight halves. Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M each shot 59 percent or better in a half against the Vols.
"Sometimes it's unfortunate for young guys," Martin said. "They base their results on how many points they score, their production offensively, but they don't understand the value of good defense. It can take you a long way. You look at the best teams in the country. They defend at a high level consistently, whether shots are falling or not."
An early-season three-game win streak was snapped when Tennessee laid an egg against UTEP in the Bahamas. The four-game win streak ended in an upset home loss to Texas A&M. After beating Ole Miss in Knoxville and winning at Alabama by a combined 33 points, the Vols stubbed their toe at Vanderbilt.
"We've just got to come out with the same focus," said point guard Antonio Barton, who scored 21 points on 5-of-7 3-point shooting with six assists and two turnovers in Saturday's victory. "After a win like this, we can't come back and let up on the next team. We've got to come in with the same focus we came into this game bleeding over to the next game.
"Sometimes it hasn't been there, or when we come out, we start slow and then we gradually pick it up. But we can't be like that. We've got to start from the whole 40 minutes."
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