The postseason light at the end of the proverbial tunnel has grown brighter on the men's side of Pratt Pavilion basketball facility.
The mood has shifted from the madness of an embarrassing loss to Austin Peay 2½ months ago to talk of March Madness with Tennessee riding a three-game win streak.
UT first-year men's coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday if the Vols go 10-6 in the SEC, he believes they'll be "in good shape" to make what would be the program's seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Since 1992 only three eligible SEC teams have won 10 or more conference regular-season games and failed to make the NCAA tournament, according to the conference office.
First things first, UT (13-12, 5-5 SEC) plays host to Arkansas (17-8, 5-5) on Wednesday (TV: MyVLT, 8 p.m.) in a battle of teams tied for fifth place in the league.
"I look back at our RPI, when it was 290 against Austin Peay (on Dec. 1), and now it's like (110),'' Martin said. "We're definitely making progress as a team at the right time.
"I think if you win your next five, I don't think there's any question at this level in this league,'' Martin said. "With the NCAA, you don't have a true gauge of, here's the criteria; in one year, it can change on you.
"If we win 10 league games we'll be in good shape, but that doesn't mean we'll be in for sure. You do your job, put in your work, and when Selection Sunday comes, if you're a part of it, you're a part of it.''
After Arkansas, the Vols close the regular season playing: at Alabama (1:30 p.m., Saturday); home vs. Ole Miss (7 p.m., Feb. 22); at South Carolina (8 p.m., Feb. 25); at LSU (9 p.m., Feb. 29) and home against Vanderbilt (4 p.m., March 3).
The SEC tournament takes place March 8-11 in New Orleans.
"If you don't say you think some about (postseason), you'd be lying,'' said UT junior Skylar McBee, who has averaged 13.7 points in his first three starts. "But if you start looking too far ahead, you can lose sight of what's next.
"If we focus on taking care of what's at hand, the big picture will take care of itself.''
That said, Martin's Missouri State team got snubbed last season despite winning the rugged Missouri Valley Conference outright with a 15-3 league record and a No. 39 RPI.
"That was tough,'' Martin said. "But it's part of it.''
Closer to home, Alabama failed to make the NCAA field last season despite going 12-4 in the SEC and posting a No. 48 RPI.
In 2008-09, South Carolina and Auburn each went 10-6 and failed to make the NCAA tournament, the Gamecocks with an RPI of 58 and Auburn's at 64.
UT freshman Jarnell Stokes isn't ready to start crunching numbers; he's just ready for more wins.
"We definitely plan on going to the (NCAA) tournament,'' Stokes said. "It would be amazing, but we feel we can beat any team we step on the floor with.''
More McBee: McBee has heard his critics loud and clear, but instead of being upset with them, he appreciates the edge they provide.
"Everyone has doubters, but that just keeps you hungry,'' said McBee, a former walk-on who leads UT with 48 made threes and is shooting a team-best 41.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. "When you get satisfied, you're in trouble. As long as you have that voice in your head reminding yourself you have doubters, you're going to work hard if you're a competitor.''
The Vols are 9-0 in games McBee has scored in double digits, and UT's three-game win streak coincides with his addition to the starting lineup.
Hall's Improvement: Junior center Kenny Hall has impressed Martin since replacing Stokes in the starting lineup, particularly on defense.
"It's amazing; He's done a good job without fouling,'' Martin said. "He's playing defense without fouling. I don't want to say anything to him about it because I don't want him to start thinking about it. He has made a conscious effort of working hard in that area.''
Stat Facts: UT has scored the same amount of points in SEC play (612) as its opponents. The Vols have attempted 205 free throws and made 144 in SEC games, while opponents have attempted 202 and made 145.
Top Five: UT's hold on ranking in the top five in national attendance for a seventh consecutive season is slipping. The Vols are averaging 17,192 per home game after only 14,784 turned out for last Wednesday's home game with South Carolina.
Wisconsin, which is sixth in the nation in attendance, is averaging 17,171 per home game.
Plenty of tickets are available for Wednesday night's game against Arkansas, including lower-level seats.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32