KNOXVILLE -- With a third of league play complete, Tennessee finds itself in a five-way tie for second place in the Southeastern Conference basketball standings.
If the Volunteers want to stay in the top half of a league in which they were picked to finish 13th in the preseason, they must ensure some of the causes of Saturday's 67-61 home loss to Texas A&M don't re-emerge.
With one of the most inexperienced rosters in the league, though, that may be difficult to do game in and game out.
"It's just a growing process," first-year Vols coach Donnie Tyndall said after Saturday's loss. "That's the thing with young teams. When you look around the country, some nights they're good, and some nights they're bad. Some nights young players look like a million bucks, and some nights they look like a high school guy again. That was our team, at least tonight.
"We had some young players revert back. We had some guys that haven't played these roles they're in now that, for lack of a better word, seemed complacent. We just can't be that way and win with our team. We have to be on edge."
Throughout the season, Tennessee has shown it's prone to endure scoreless spells due to its limitations offensively, but the Vols have been able to find ways to overcome them.
Against the Aggies, the Vols too often settled for jumpers and failed to be as aggressive as they've been in some of their wins.
While Tennessee launched 29 3-pointers -- many of them did come as the Vols were trying to rally down the stretch -- Texas A&M held advantages in rebounding (34-27) and points in the paint (30-10).
"We just have to be better," sophomore guard Robert Hubbs said. "We have to take that away from them and be on our keys and box out and rebound and do the little simple stuff to win the game."
Tyndall said parts of Saturday's game, during which Tennessee shot 25 percent in the first half and scored just 36 points in the game's first 31 minutes, reminded him of the Vols' 56-38 loss earlier this month.
"It's pretty much what we did then, was just settle for too many jumpshots," Tyndall said. "Our will and our mentality to drive the ball wasn't good enough like it has been, in most cases, the last few games. It wasn't the case tonight, but give Texas A&M a lot of credit for the way they defended."
Tyndall also was disappointed in how much more physical the Aggies were than the Vols, who made some tough plays to pull out a win at South Carolina, a game that included Josh Richardson suffering a busted lip and Derek Reese a large cut on his right shoulder.
"When you win, I don't make excuses that our size wasn't good enough," Tyndall said. "When you lose, you don't want to start saying, 'Well, their size bothered us,' but in reality some nights it's going to bother us. When you make 3s or you get to the foul line a lot, sometimes it compensates for the lack of size and physicality we have.
"We're not going to start making excuses. When you can go beat a physical South Carolina team, you've got to come home and be just as physical against a good Texas A&M team, and we weren't. We just weren't, but give Texas A&M credit, because they were very physical."
Tennessee has to be pleased with how well Kevin Punter played again on Saturday. The junior college transfer led the Vols with 17 points and scored in double figures for a third straight game following a two-game stretch where he was 1-of-15 shooting. Punter of 9-of-13 on 3s in the last three games.
"He did a good job of stepping up and knocking down shots," Richardson said.
The Vols would like to get Richardson going, however, after their best player ran into some offensive struggles the past three games. The senior had just six points on 3-of-10 shooting until hitting a couple of late 3s to give him 12 points.
In the last three games, Richardson averaged 11 points after entering those games with a 16.4-point scoring average.
"We've just got to step it up," he said. "I think (Texas A&M) did a good job of coming here the second half and popping us in the mouth. We didn't respond."
Tennessee goes to Arkansas, which beat Alabama on Thursday on a Bobby Portis tip-in at the overtime buzzer and escaped with a one-point road win Saturday at Missouri when Wes Clark missed two free throws in the final seconds, on Tuesday before hosting Auburn and former UT coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.
"Every game you play in conference is important," Punter said. "Every time we put them jerseys on and get on that court, it's real important in conference play. Every win matters, no matter who you're playing. Every team is a good team in this conference."
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