KNOXVILLE — The last time the Tennessee men's basketball program was ranked in the Associated Press poll in February, Mike Hamilton was the athletic director, Derek Dooley was two weeks into his tenure as the school's football coach and Pat Summitt had the Lady Vols ranked fifth nationally.
That will change Thursday when the calendar rolls over to a new month.
The updated AP poll released today had Tennessee 18th. It's the highest the Vols have been ranked since entering the poll in the first week of December. Tennessee has been ranked for nine straight weeks — longer than any other team in the Southeastern Conference — as it prepares to host games this week against LSU and Ole Miss.
The Vols are 15-5 overall, 5-3 in SEC play.
But with 10 games left to play in a conference that is proving to be among the toughest in the nation, coach Rick Barnes remains on a relentless pursuit of consistency from his team, which lacks a single player with postseason experience beyond a conference tournament.
"If our guys at this point in time think they can take any nights off, we won't win, plain and simple," Barnes said today.
College basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy ranked Tennessee 10th in his ratings released Sunday, while ESPN bracket projection specialist Joe Lunardi had the Vols as a four seed in the NCAA tournament in his update too.facebook
Of four SEC teams in this week's AP poll, only No. 11 Auburn ranks higher. Ironically, the Tigers are coached by Bruce Pearl, who was the man to last have the Tennessee ranked in February. That was in 2010, when the Vols made a run to the Elite Eight. Tennessee began the following season ranked but dropped out before conference play started.facebook
An ESPN breakdown of 10 national coach-of-the-year candidates released last week listed Barnes fifth for the job he has done in his third year at Tennessee. Still, the veteran coach claims to be unsure about how to evoke the consistency he is still searching for from the Volunteers.
He does know how to define what he is searching for.
"The things that you can control," he said. "Your mental focus, your physical focus, being on edge with getting ready, scouting reports, knowing exactly what we're trying to do, details on both offense and defense. That's a choice and that's where the kind of consistency that we're talking about (comes from)."
Offensive production by Tennessee's guards continues to be sporadic. In a 68-45 win at Iowa State on Saturday, Lamonte Turner and James Daniel combined for 36 points while starters Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden struggled.
But for Barnes, the metrics of consistency are not as simple as a shooting percentage. He understands that shots may not fall on a given night for certain players.
"I think you develop that through day-to-day winning habits," he said. "It's hard. That's why there's so many teams that aren't consistent."
Tennessee has won six of its last seven games as it prepares to host LSU (11-9, 2-7) on Wednesday night. The Vols have held six of their seven opponents during that stretch to 65 points or less. Zooming in further, Barnes still sees patches of inconsistency, such as in the second half of a 67-62 win over Vanderbilt last week when the Commodores roared back with 47 second-half points.
"I think it goes back to maturity sometimes where guys get a lead, they look at the scoreboard and they're not playing the game," Barnes said. "Sometimes when you have a big lead, too, and need to hold the ball, they're not. So we still have some areas we can grow in those situations."