KNOXVILLE - Will the real Tennessee men's basketball team please stand up? And for more than one or two games at a time?
The good Volunteers inhabited Thompson-Boling Arena against South Carolina on Saturday afternoon. UT led the worst team in the Southeastern Conference by 23 points at halftime and coasted to a 72-53 victory.
When the Big Orange plays like this, it's easy to envision Cuonzo Martin's third UT team upsetting No. 3 Florida inside this same building Tuesday night. And earning its first NCAA tournament bid under the Conz. And maybe even winning a game or two in the Big Dance.
Trouble is, 23 games into this 15-8 Vols season (6-4 in SEC play), no one yet knows if the Tennessee team that took the court against the Gamecocks is the real deal or if that distinction goes to the befuddlingly bad bunch that lost at home to Texas A&M, got shellacked at Florida 15 days ago and was stunned at Vanderbilt last week.
When you're a third of the way through February and you've yet to win more than four games in a row all season, it's tough to know whether your team is good, bad or somewhere in between, which usually spells N-I-T instead of N-C-A-A.
"We know we shouldn't have lost to Texas A&M here at home, and we shouldn't have lost at Vanderbilt," said senior wing Jordan McRae, who made sure the Vols wouldn't lose to the Gamecocks by scoring a game-high 24 points while hitting six of eight 3-pointers.
"We've got to learn that you can't let up after two wins in a row. You have to start preparing for the next game two or three days before that, as soon as you get the scouting report."
At least one scouting report on Tennessee should read: Stop McRae and you stop Tennessee. The Vols are 0-4 in SEC play when he shoots under 40 percent from the field. Conversely, they've lost only once all season -- at No. 4 and unbeaten Wichita State -- when he's hit better than 45 percent from the floor.
"Jordan, Jeronne [Maymon] and Jarnell [Stokes] -- those guys have to play well in order for us to be successful," Martin said.
And when they don't play well? McRae (19.3), Stokes (14) and Maymon (11) are averaging a combined 44.3 points per game after Saturday. Only once -- at Kentucky -- have the Vols lost when those three combined for 44 or more.
Conversely, only four of the team's 15 victories have come when they failed to hit their average. Two of those were against Wake Forest and LSU, with the other two coming at home against Morehead State and The Citadel in games in which the Vols bench logged big minutes.
"I just think the biggest key," Martin said, "is that we have to find a way, consistently, to play well whether or not you're making or missing shots. So if the shots aren't falling, you still have to defend, rebound and play hard. That's a sign of elite teams and great teams. That's the biggest key, because, other than that, we don't change a lot. We are who we are. When we get the ball inside to our bigs and Jordan scores the ball, things fall in line."
Some might say that's too big a key when one considers that McRae and Maymon are seniors and Stokes, a junior, is likely on his way to the NBA. To look ahead to next year is to see no certain improvement for a team whose NCAA tournament hopes are hanging by a thread unless it can win the SEC tournament for the first time since 1979.
Let this Big Orange bunch wind up in the NIT for the third time in three seasons under Martin, and UT athletic director Dave Hart, who didn't hire Martin, might have to be the most optimistic person on the planet not to fire him.
Nor did Saturday's results help UT's chances for posting a win beyond Florida capable of opening the eyes and hearts of the NCAA tournament selection committee. Future opponents Missouri (whom the Vols face twice in the next eight games), Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Auburn all lost. Mizzou now trails UT by two full games, which means a Vols loss to the Show Me Tigers now hurts far more than a win helps.
There is at least one reason to feel good about both Martin and this team. It now stands 7-1 this year following a loss. And those victories are by an average of 13 points.
"If we'd dropped this game," McRae said, "a lot of guys might have started pressing, saying things like, 'We must win, we must win.' But we're fine."
Yet he also admitted that come Tuesday night inside the Boling Alley, Florida is "a big game."
Perhaps the last game big enough to deliver the Vols an NCAA at-large bid.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com