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Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Brianna Paciorka via AP / Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes speaks to an official during Wednesday's game against South Carolina in Knoxville. The Vols cruised to a 93-73 win that night, but on Saturday they were hapless in a 70-55 loss to Kentucky.

The words rolling off Tennessee men's basketball coach Rick Barnes' lips on Saturday afternoon weren't exactly string music to citizens of the Big Orange Nation.

Attempting to explain his 19th-ranked Volunteers' 70-55 home loss to Kentucky, Barnes said, "I don't think we had great mental preparation yesterday getting ready for the game."

He also said, "I don't think they've handled success very well."

And this: "We have a team where you guys know we have some young players that I still think are learning what college basketball is all about. By this time of year, they should know it."

The question is, by this time of year, with Selection Sunday for the 2021 NCAA tournament on March 14 quickly approaching, is there enough time left to learn what's needed to be learned to make a deep run? Or will this be remembered as one of the less satisfying seasons in Vols basketball history?

You need only point to the seventh of Kentucky's eight national championships to know big changes for the better can occur late. On Feb. 14, 1998, Tubby Smith's Wildcats lost 73-64 to Ole Miss inside Kentucky's Rupp Arena. That dropped Big Blue to 22-4 that season. It was also the team's last loss on the way to that year's NCAA title.

Even more unlikely was Kentucky's run to the 2014 national title game. That season's squad dropped three of its final four regular-season games by a total of 28 points, then somehow won five straight in the NCAA tourney before falling to Connecticut.

Point is, struggling in February doesn't have to doom championship dreams for March.

Having said that, Tennessee certainly seems to be trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time, Saturday's loss its sixth of the year, all six defeats coming in the SEC, where the Vols are now 8-6 (they're 15-6 overall) with two games remaining and no longer guaranteed to grab a double-bye at the league tournament in Nashville, assuming it is played.

Viewed as a potential Final Four contender three weeks ago when they crushed Kansas in Knoxville, the Vols have lost thrice since, including a 13-point setback at LSU 10 days ago and the 15-point home loss to a Kentucky team that improved to 8-13 with that win.

"Its that old saying if you're not getting better, you're getting worse," Barnes lamented Saturday.

Look around the country, and a lot of traditional powers are getting better. Duke. North Carolina. Kansas. UCLA. Villanova. Michigan. Ohio State.

A little more than a month ago, the Vols were ahead of each of those save Villanova. When this week's AP Top 25 is released, it wouldn't be shocking if they were behind all of those save Duke.

To their credit, at least it could be viewed that way, Tennessee players appear to remain upbeat.

As junior guard Victor Bailey, the Oregon transfer, noted after Saturday's loss: "It's not the end of the world. The sky is still the limit for us. We have a lot of good guys that can still make things happen."

And they do. As much as any team expected to hear its name called on Selection Sunday, Tennessee may be a far tougher matchup in person than it will appear to be on video.

Standout freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jalen Springer are strong, quick and unafraid. Josiah Jordan-James, when healthy (and he sat out Saturday with a hand injury) is a matchup nightmare for smalls and bigs alike, depending on whether you view the 6-foot-6, 207-pound sophomore as an undersized front courter or an oversized guard. Then there's senior Yves Pons, who's one of the better athletes in the college game, a shot blocker extraordinaire and dangerous 3-point threat on occasion.

If there's an X-factor to all of this, it's post player John Fulkerson, the fifth-year senior who seems to have lost some of the unbridled joy he always seemed to display during his time in Knoxville before this season. It's as if he's thinking too much about what he needs to do to impress pro scouts rather than merely playing to win at the college level.

If anything explains that 19-point victory over Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, it may be the fact the Vols are much tougher to match up against the first time you see them in person than when they face an SEC foe such as the Wildcats, who were seeing them for the second time in a little more than two weeks.

Perhaps to that end as much as his longtime friendship with Barnes, Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the Vols after the game: "They're a top-20 team, probably a top-15 team; they have a chance to go to a Final Four."

The Final Four would seem quite a reach at this point, but the Vols can legitimately still make a run at a regional final if they once more can begin to get better instead of worse.

Either way, the clock is ticking. Fast. But if the past week-plus is any indication, at least they should no longer be bothered by having to handle success.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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