An orange-clad, sell-out crowd. A bitter in-state rival. Post-season ramifications. A national ESPN television audience.
That Tennessee is playing such a hyped-up, pivotal game on the final day of the regular season is an accomplishment in itself when one considers the team's starting point under first-year UT men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin.
The Vols (17-13, 9-6 SEC), however, are more interested in what lies ahead today (TV: ESPN, 4 p.m.) against Vanderbilt (21-9, 10-5) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
A UT victory coupled with a Kentucky win at Florida on Sunday would give the Vols a second-place finish in the SEC (via tiebreaker) and a first-round bye in the league tournament, which runs March 8-11 in New Orleans. A Tennessee loss would mean no bye and a fifth-place finish.
"I want to keep this season going as long as I can, and I don't want us to go out on a sour note,'' said fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum, one of three players who will be honored prior to the start of the game as part of Senior Day.
"I've been to the NCAA tournament every year I've been here, and I want to continue this streak,'' said Tatum, referring to UT's streak of six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. "Sometimes it's good for players to understand their backs are against the wall; how are you going to step up as a player?''
The Vols, who also will see Renaldo Woolridge and Tyler Summitt make their final regular-season home appearances, have measured up well since the start of February, winning seven of their past eight games.
Only one other UT team during the past 40 years has won eight of its last nine regular-season games. In 2007-08, the Vols finished 31-5, winning eight of their last nine to win the SEC regular-season championship.
This edition of the Vols saw their RPI fall as low as 294 in December before rising up to their current status at 81 — outside of
the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble but still on the radar.
UT would figure to make a significant jump with a win over Vanderbilt, which has an RPI of 22.
Martin, who inherited a team with only one returning starter and was picked to finish 11th at SEC Media Day in October, said the finishing flurry is a tribute to his players.
"The guys have been fighting together, fighting for each other, believing in their own individual skills and believing in what we're doing as a team, as a program and the system,'' Martin said. "All the credit goes to the guys for believing and having a passion and a fight when things looked somewhat bleak.''
At no time did the future appear dimmer than when Vanderbilt dropped UT to 1-3 in the SEC by running the Vols out of Memorial Gym on Jan. 24 by a 65-47 count.
Tennessee turned the ball over a season-high 25 times, and the Commodores beat the Vols on the fast break to the tune of 15-0 in what amounted to a Music City meltdown.
"What do we have to do differently this time against them?'' Martin asked rhetorically. "Not to be sarcastic, but we have to play basketball. We didn't play well at their place, and that's a credit to them for playing well and protecting their home floor.''
Now, it's Tennessee's turn to try to do the same. The Vols have won six straight at home and 12 of their past 13.
UT's season-ending run led to today's sellout crowd, which clinches the Vols a spot in the nation's top-five in average home attendance for a seventh consecutive season.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32