KNOXVILLE — Five wins in six games to close January generated unexpected February stakes for Tennessee's men's basketball team.
The Volunteers responded by losing three of their past four games.
Now they are trying to return to playing their best basketball in the five remaining regular-season games with postseason hopes and conference positioning on the line.
"I don't think they've tightened up," Vols coach Rick Barnes said Friday, "but I don't think they've played as hard. I think that's a young group of guys that forgot what got them there. In the Georgia game we played hard, but I showed them clips of where we had played harder in other games.
"One of the things you try to build in a program is how hard it is to win and how hard you've got to play and work. We don't have many bad practices, but we have to go out in games and bring that emotion, effort and energy to win. I tell them all the time that I don't think they understand how precious winning is and how hard it is to win.
"If you like that feeling, they paid a price to get that feeling, and then they let up. We have to get back to where we're putting ourselves in position to really win."relatedarticlethumb
At 14-12, the Vols essentially are in a must-win position the rest of the way, and they certainly can't afford a home loss today to Southeastern Conference struggler Missouri.
The Tigers actually are ahead of LSU in the SEC standings, but at 251st they are the lowest league team in the Rating Percentage Index by 99 places.
"In my opinion, I've looked around, the SEC doesn't have a lot of respect for basketball," said Lew Evans, Tennessee's journeyman graduate transfer. "I think this league is very good from top to bottom. Some of these teams have had struggles, but I think this (league) from top to bottom is very good and every night you need to play your best to come out with a win."
Since losing 13 straight games, Missouri is playing better, but it has yet to win a road game under coach Kim Anderson, who's well into his third and possibly final season in Columbia.
"Well, over the last four games they're 2-2 and we're 1-3," Barnes said. "I've watched Missouri all year because I have a lot of respect for Kim Anderson, and his guys have shown as much perseverance and resiliency as any team that we will play all year. They just keep playing and they play hard. They know what they're doing.
"They know how they want the game to be played, and they work hard at trying to get it done that way."
Tennessee couldn't close the deal after building 19- and 14-point leads against Mississippi State and Georgia, and the Vols delivered a no-show performance in a 25-point loss at Kentucky on Tuesday.
Barnes believed it was the "worst focus" his team has had for a game all season and said he needs to do a better job from his end.
Every player outside of Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield played poorly, including Grant Williams, the freshman who followed up a 30-point game against Georgia with eight points and three rebounds against the Wildcats.
"He can score points and he's shown that, but I thought he went into the game against Kentucky with that in mind," Barnes said. "I don't even think he had his thoughts at all on the game plan defensively, and some of his decisions he made on offense weren't good.
"But it's like we talked about as a team, these guys are still young in some ways in terms of being able to stay focused every game as opposed to letting the hype of a game get going. He'll learn from it. I didn't think Kyle (Alexander) had a particularly good game the other night from the start, because he's been engaged right from the beginning.
"Those guys will bounce back because it means a lot to them, and they'll learn from some of the things we didn't do."
With only five games left, Tennessee is running out of time to get back on track with so much still at stake.
"We need to take every game like it's our last and win the rest of these games," Evans said.