It wasn't so long ago, October, in fact, that this edition of the Tennessee men's basketball team was projected to finish 11th in the SEC.
"The number is 11?'' UT first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said at the time. "Well, we can prove them right, or we can prove them wrong.''
Consider Tennessee's game against Auburn today (TV: ESPN2, 6 p.m.) at Thompson-Boling Arena a mid-season judgment day of sorts.
Cuonzo Martin talks after practice Jan. 26
The Tigers (12-8, 2-4 SEC) were one of the teams picked to finish ahead of the Vols (9-11, 1-4).
A UT win today would move the Vols ahead of Auburn in the SEC standings. With a loss, Tennessee would drop to the bottom of the league by virtue of a head-to-head loss against idle Georgia and the worst overall record in the SEC.
Sophomore point guard Trae Golden, who remains the Vols' leading scorer (13.2 points per game) even while his role shifts from shooter to playmaker, said the standings are not lost on the team.
"We understand we're 1-4, and we need to win,'' Golden said Thursday, "whether it keeps us out of last place or not.''
It wasn't so long ago that the UT players were indignant toward the projections; after all, this was a program coming off six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
All they needed, the four new starters insisted, was an opportunity for playing
time that the previous staff didn't allow them.
The Vols have indeed looked stronger than some suspected at times this season, opening SEC play on Jan. 7 with a 67-56 win over then-No. 13 Florida, and most recently, beating defending national champion Connecticut at home, 60-57, last Saturday.
But a disappointing overtime road loss to Georgia (57-53) on Jan. 18 and Wednesday's blowout defeat at Vanderbilt (65-47) have been sandwiched between the impressive victories.
The addition of mid-term enrollee Jarnell Stokes has provided a boost, but UT is just 1-3 in the games the 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman has played.
In Auburn, the Vols face a scrappy team that shows signs of finding its way under second-year coach Tony Barbee, having already eclipsed last season's win total (11) while recently pushing LSU (65-58, overtime loss) and Arkansas (56-53) to the brink before dropping its past two road contests.
The Tigers are expected to throw some zone and press looks at the Vols with hopes of earning their first SEC road win and bolstering their post-season resume.
Martin said he's not ready to use the "must-win" term for any game or draw a line in the sand against Auburn.
"That comes in the next phase, when the team has been around me long enough to really and truly understand the expectations,'' Martin said Thursday. "Right now, they are still learning on the fly.
"But if you're a competitor, you always want to win. Most importantly, first and foremost, you protect your home court.''
UT freshman Josh Richardson, who with his hard-nosed defense and team-first offensive approach has become the model Martin recruit, said the team still harbors hopes of making the postseason.
"We still talk about it; it's not a topic every day, but it comes up,'' Richardson said. "Once all the pieces come together, we'll be fine.''
The same type of post-season conversation likely takes place in the Auburn locker room, and if one were to judge strictly by numbers, the Tigers' talk would be more realistic.
Auburn is No. 129 in the RPI rankings; the Vols are No. 159.
But the only numbers Martin is consumed with involve turnovers, as UT is coming off a season-high 25 that led to a season-low 47 points against Vanderbilt.
"In our case, the thing that's puzzling is the turnovers, especially the way we turn it over,'' Martin said. "I could see if a team is pressing us the whole night, and balls were flying across the court. But when not a lot of pressure is being applied, that's a tough thing to deal with.''
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32