KNOXVILLE – The main “T word” being thrown around at Tennessee’s practice this week is likely Texas A&M – the name of the Vols’ next opponent (Sat., 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
Regardless of the team’s situation, coach Cuonzo Martin has always preached a one-game-at-a-time mentality during his tenure at UT.
“The thing I try to stay away from is looking three games ahead,” Martin said earlier this week. “The most important thing for us to do is win the [next game], to compete. We motivate them in certain ways, but I try to stay away from looking four or five games ahead.”
But from an outside perspective, it’s time to start wondering about the other “T word” that is the elephant in the gym of many programs this time of year. That would be the Tournament, as in the NCAA Tournament, the Big Dance – the one every team is working towards.
The talk might be a little premature, but it's beginning to look more and more like a possibility with each UT win.
The Vols currently sit at 15-10 (7-6 SEC) with an RPI of 69 and are currently seventh in a league that might only get three or four bids. There have been head-scratching losses that will come back to haunt them. But after four straight wins by an average of 14.2 points, it’s clear that something has changed from a team that sat at 11-10 just a few weeks ago.
"This is a different team,” Martin said after defeating LSU 82-72 Tuesday night. “This is the team I thought we'd be at the beginning of the season, but you go through things - guys have to learn, guys have to grow. I don't think Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes would have been the guys they were at the beginning of the season either. But they're playing the way they're built and advertised, and that's why you're getting those results.
“You have to go through it as a team; you have to learn from it. The thing I give these guys the most credit for is not giving up when the times got tough, you know, losing tough games, losing emotional games, but to stay the course and to continue to get better; that's a sign of a really good basketball team.”
Beyond winning the conference tournament, there’s no set formula to guarantee a way into the Big Dance. Realistically, though, Tennessee would need to get to 19 or 20 wins to start thinking about it.
Despite four straight wins, the path is still rocky. It starts on Saturday at Texas A&M. The Vols have yet to defeat a team with a winning record on the road.
They will then host No. 5 Florida, travel to Georgia (a team that knocked UT off two weeks ago), go to Auburn and wrap up the season at home against Missouri, a likely NCAA Tournament team.
Though there's still a substantial hill to climb, the Vols can look no further than 2011-12 to see their own precedent for a late-season surge like they need this year. They sat at 10-12 at the end of January 2012 before reeling off wins in eight of their last nine games. It was a run that nearly propelled them into the Tournament before an overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament barely kept them out.
“Possibly, I think so” Martin said earlier this week when asked if last year’s late-season success could inspire a similar scenario this year. “But for us as a staff, we just continue to talk about working on the little things.”
It is something that sticks around in the players’ heads as well. Having been left for dead in Tournament contention both last year and this year, Golden, who’s recent improved play has been one of the biggest catalysts for the Vols’ improvement, knows that this is a squad that shouldn’t be counted out, regardless of record.
“I know what it feels like for nobody to think our team is good,” he said. “Last year, this year, the main thing we tell each other is ‘don’t forget'. Whether we’re 1-3, 1-4 in the SEC, keep working hard and I think everything is going to work out for us.”
Whether that works out to lead Tennessee to the Big Dance or perhaps a consolation prize like the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) remains to be seen. In the meantime, Martin and the Vols will continue to march on with their one-game-at-a-time approach.
"I think we are just playing good basketball,” Martin said. “These guys are a good team. Still have plenty of work to do, there is still progress to be made. We have the tools to be successful.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga