Will the real University of Tennessee men's basketball team please stand up?
Because the UT team that outscored woeful Kentucky inside the Wildcats' Rupp Arena on Saturday night by a 34-13 run down the stretch of an 82-71 victory looked like a team easily capable of reaching the Elite Eight round of next month's NCAA Tournament, if not the Final Four.
And that effort wasn't even quite as impressive as what had transpired seven days earlier in Knoxville, when the Vols shredded a somewhat decent Kansas team 80-61 to spur legitimate dreams of reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history as long as they can avoid facing either top-ranked Gonzaga or No. 2 Baylor in a regional final.
"The other night I thought it was the best those guys had done with fighting fatigue throughout the game because I thought they had to because of the foul trouble we were in after the first half with Santi (Vescovi) and Fulky (John Fulkerson)," said Barnes on Monday of his team's effort throughout the UK win. "Those guys I thought did a great job pushing themselves."
But then there is that other UT team. You know the one. That team led Ole Miss by 11 points in the second half in Oxford last week only to lose 52-50.
That dreadful Big Orange bunch also fell 75-49 at Florida, despite the Gators being shorthanded. No one knew it at the time, but the UT brass was meeting with then Central Florida athletic director Danny White about him leaving UCF for Tennessee, which he did less than 48 hours later.
Since the Gators' head hoops coach is Mike White, who is Danny's brother, think of the media dynamics regarding those two going forward, especially if the Vols' second game with the Gators (postponed this week over COVID-19) is rescheduled for later this winter.
But back to the games that have been played heading into Wednesday night's visit from Georgia.
Like pretty much everyone else inside the Southeastern Conference save Alabama, the Bulldogs have been both awesome and awful this season. After losing their first four league games, they've won five of their last seven. Six days after falling by 24 points at South Carolina, they won by five at Auburn, which had beaten the Bulldogs by 18 at UGA less than three weeks earlier.
Much like Ole Miss, you could label the Dawgs unsung but unafraid. Also, with the exception of the conference opener at Missouri, the Vols' worst efforts — at Ole Miss and at Florida — have come in midweek games.
A win on Wednesday against Georgia would do much to make the Big Orange Nation believe the Vols are once more on the right track to March Gladness. Such a victory would vault them to 7-4 in SEC action and 14-4 overall heading into Saturday afternoon's game at LSU.
It would also seem to underscore Barnes' belief that "We've got to continue to build on what we're doing right now and be able to play multiple ways."
Some would say it's a multiple collection of efforts and execution, or lack thereof, that has both Barnes and the fan base wondering each night which team will show up: The Good Vols or the Bad Vols.
Then again, it's not that the same thing isn't happening all over the sport in this COVID-plagued season. No one save Baylor and Gonzaga has really shown great consistency. Merely consider Iowa, with likely collegiate player of the year Luke Garza in the post. Ranked as high as No. 3 in early December, the Hawkeyes have lost four of their last five and now stand No. 15, which may actually be too high.
Between cancellations, postponements and what seem to be more injuries than normal, almost everyone appears susceptible to bad outings, including, obviously, UT.
But with freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combining for 50 points against Kentucky on a night the Vols' senior anchors Yves Pons and Fulkerson were strangely absent in the scoring column (Fulkerson 0 points, Pons 6), UT not only survived but thrived, a potentially fine sign moving forward.
As Barnes was wrapping up his weekly Monday press conference, he said of his team and the shortening road in front of them: "We've got an unselfish group of guys, and the more that we can get players to understand roles, shot selection, taking care of the ball, consistent defense, rebounding the ball — you get consistent there and you'll be pretty consistent throughout."
If the Vols can somehow mange to become pretty consistently good down the stretch of a season in which consistency seems to pretty much be lacking in every program save unbeatens Baylor and Gonzaga, UT just might become one of the last four standing come the first weekend in April in Indianapolis.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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