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Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Caitie McKekin via AP / Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson believes the Volunteers this season tend to become too complacent after victories.

Unless the starting point is an NCAA tournament First Four game, winning the national championship in the men's basketball 68-team extravaganza requires six consecutive victories.

Tennessee hasn't won more than two straight games in more than a month, which is reflected by a 5-5 record since the Volunteers raced out to a 10-1 start. The latest example of erratic play from the preseason Southeastern Conference favorites transpired inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon, when they followed Wednesday's 93-73 thumping of South Carolina with a lackluster 70-55 loss to Kentucky.

"I feel like once we get a taste of winning, we've kind of gotten a bit lackadaisical and felt on top," Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson said. "I feel that, as a group, once we start winning and getting on a roll, we've got to keep it going until the end. Maybe that's March, or maybe that's April, but we just have to keep it going consistently."

There has been nothing consistent about Tennessee since its humiliating 75-49 defeat at Florida on Jan. 19, when the Vols were No. 6 in The Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the NET rankings. A resounding 80-61 triumph over Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge was followed by a drab 52-50 loss at Ole Miss, and consecutive high-octane performances at Kentucky and against Georgia were followed by a lopsided loss at LSU.

Vols sixth-year coach Rick Barnes doesn't believe his players have an inability to handle adversity as much as an inability to build off the good times.

"I don't think they've handled success very well — when you feel like you're getting things going and feel like you're turning the corner — and that goes back to leadership within the framework of what we're trying to do," Barnes said. "Some of that has to come from the players. I don't think we've handled success very well. I really don't.

"It's that old adage that if you're not getting better, you're getting worse, and that's frustrating."

Things have certainly worsened for Tennessee in both the SEC tournament and NCAA tournament landscapes. The Vols are 15-6 overall and 8-6 in conference play, with their league record more than a game back of Alabama (13-1), Arkansas (9-4) and LSU (9-4) and percentage points behind Florida (7-5).

Tennessee is also having to fend off Missouri (7-6), Kentucky (7-7) and Ole Miss (7-7) in the standings, so receiving one of the four byes into the SEC tournament quarterfinals is far from assured right now.

The Vols dropped from No. 11 to No. 17 in the NET rankings as a result of Saturday's loss and are starting to resemble more of an NCAA tournament 5 seed, which puts them in the perilous position of being upset bait in a 5-versus-12 first-round matchup. Tennessee certainly has a chance at two wins this week with games at Vanderbilt and at Auburn, though the Vols have lost five straight times to Bruce Pearl's Tigers.

"It's a consistency thing," redshirt junior guard Victor Bailey said. "We come out and win one game by 20 and then lose the next one. We'll beat somebody by 30 and then lose the next one. Once we find that consistency and we approach every game the same, things will start panning out for us.

"We've got to start treating every day like it's going to be our last, because pretty soon, that will be the case."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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