KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's basketball loss at Mississippi State on Saturday felt more damaging than it probably was to the Volunteers and their fans.
The position in which the Vols had put themselves with four straight wins was the primary reason why.
"We expect to win now," coach Rick Barnes said Monday. "In the past I don't think people thought we would win. That's why it's difficult. It's not like we got beat by a bad team. What makes it difficult is we're expecting to win every time we go on the floor now.
"I'd like to think our players think that, but if they do believe that, I think they're going to have to learn it's hard. But it's supposed to be hard. It's not supposed to be easy. Now the question is will they embrace that and realize now you've got to play and play for 40 minutes. We expect to win, and now we've got to do it.
"I can assure you that Ole Miss is going to come in here Wednesday expecting to win, too. Georgia's going to do the same thing. We have to have that mindset that it's going to be a real hard-fought game if we expect to win. We're going to have to really play well and we're going to have to play hard."
Tennessee's rematch with Ole Miss comes three weeks and a day after the Rebels reversed a 13-point second-half deficit and outscored the Vols 41-17 in the final 15 minutes.
Mississippi State beat Tennessee in similar fashion, outscoring the Vols 34-12 in a 14-minute span to turn an 18-point deficit into a four-point lead on the way to the victory.
After settling too often for perimeter shots in the first half, Mississippi State pounded the ball inside and attacked the smaller Vols in the post, and the Bulldogs were quicker to 50-50 balls and dominated Tennessee on the glass.
Barnes disputed the notion that his team ran out of gas as it lost control of the momentum and the game.
"We got up and we got knocked back on our heels, and I think we didn't respond," he said. "Anxiety can make you look tired. I think it can make you look like you're not sure, and I felt the anxiety from our team. You could feel it, and that can drain you as a player if you're not tough enough to stay locked in and focused on what you need to get done."
Playing with leads has been an issue for Tennessee all season, and Barnes believes there are multiple factors contributing to those struggles.
"Sometimes immaturity has something to do with it, when you get out to a big lead and you think that this game's over and this team's not ready to play," he explained. "Bad shots and turnovers can flip it around real quick, where you get careless. You get a lead and you think, 'Well, I can go take some chances here,' and the next thing you know that happens.
"Officials can factor into it sometimes. There's a lot of things that can factor into turning games around, and it goes back to being focused and understanding that it is a 40-minute game. What do you do to flip it back? If you don't get aggressive and play to win as opposed to just playing and hoping the game gets over with and you're on top, you're not going to flip it back."
The Vols responded to their meltdown in Oxford by ripping off four consecutive wins, including resume-builders against Kentucky and Kansas State, and if they can bounce back from the Mississippi State debacle with two home wins this week, they will prolong their stay in the NCAA tournament discussion.
"You're concerned about the unknown," Barnes said.
"There's a lot of basketball left here coming down the stretch that's going to separate where you are in the league and what you can do and what chance you'll have in postseason. Even if we had won the game Saturday, I would not be any less concerned about the game Wednesday, because I know how badly we got beat at Ole Miss.
"Regardless of where you are, I don't think coaches are ever not concerned about where their team might be mentally."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.