You're only as good as your last game, which means right now we don't feel very good about our once-vaunted basketball team. The "vaunted" part was always based more in an idea than a ranking: the Vols weren't pretty, but they defended with a purpose. More than a purpose, defense was Tennessee's identity under Cuonzo Martin, and that identity yielded a stunning second place finish in the SEC last season and the cusp of the NCAA Tournament, a remarkable feat after most of us gave up on winning basketball in the immediate aftermath of Bruce Pearl's run.
Even this year, in wins over Xavier and Wichita State and a close loss at Georgetown, the Vols were playing ugly but winning or almost winning. Ugly basketball is beautiful when it's victorious, but there's a very fine line after that, and it's in human nature and entertainment value to be more upset with a 37-36 loss than a 107-106 loss.
The last two games, the basketball hasn't been beautiful, hasn't been winning, and hasn't been anything close to what we've come to expect from Cuonzo's Vols. There are a number of reasons for this, I'm sure - a step up in competition (if Ole Miss keeps playing the way they're playing), still learning how to function without Jeronne Maymon, getting new faces like Derek Reese involved in the flow, and getting little to no production from a key component like Trae Golden - but it all adds up to massive frustration throughout the program. And while March can't be the focus in mid-January, the 8-5 Vols are simply running out of losses with 17 games left to play, and as we learned last season, finishing as high as second in your conference guarantees nothing these days. Tennessee needs wins, quantity and quality.
The good news is nothing helps your RPI like road wins over strong teams, and the next two contests are huge opportunities: at Alabama tomorrow, at Kentucky next week.
Alabama has lost six of their last eight after a 6-0 start. Some have been close quality losses: two points at Cincinnati, five against Dayton. They also were blown out by VCU and Missouri, and have additional losses to Tulane and Mercer. The Tide did beat Oakland by 20 in their non-conference finale.
Trevor Releford still leads the way for this team, averaging 16.8 points per game and creating a matchup problem for a worn down Vol defense.
The Tide are the team in this league that most resembles us. Both teams allow the opposition to shoot just 40.2%, a number that is certainly on the rise for the Vols. Both teams average right at 13 turnovers per game, though Alabama forces twice as many steals per contest with just over eight. Turnovers have been a big problem for Tennessee in their last few games as well.
It's a huge chance to bounce back, and an important one to get: you don't want to go looking for answers or turnarounds in Rupp Arena if you can't get this one. Both teams have strong enough non-conference schedules to keep them in the conversation if they can string together victories in the SEC, and with Bama coming off a blowout loss to Missouri and the Vols to Ole Miss, we both need to get this taste out of our mouth. Only one will, however - last year Alabama temporarily derailed UT's momentum as the lone loss in the Vols' final nine regular season games. It's not necessarily must-win for either team this time, but it's much needed. How will Tennessee respond from such an abysmal performance on Wednesday? The answer will tell us a lot about this team and a lot about Cuonzo's ability to re-establish this team's identity.
Saturday, 1:00 PM ET, ESPN2. Go Vols.